Much of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (Il gattopardo) has a laboured energy of theoretical dramaturgy. A portrait of a changing world in 1860s Sicily, the film focuses in on a sweeping romantic vision of the Royal family of Salina. Early on, the family’s personal Jesuit priest explains (to the poor working class) that the nation’s wealthy are inscrutable. Wealth has not just afforded them luxury but isolation from the needs and wants of the average Sicilian, and while the man may occupy a room in their home, their thoughts are alien to him.
Visconti has always treated the texture of desire in his films as a central force of narrative and theme. Class, background and circumstance all contribute to the temperature of desire in his films, as longing seems tangibly connected to the survival of society itself. Does the longing for touch burn your finger tips or does it sit at the bottom of your gut like a cold wind? Though desire has the power to corrupt, the cold feeling of these large homes and self-motivated politics in The Leopard are emblematic of a world that, after centuries of pillaging, has nothing left to want.
In later years, with films like Sandra (1965), Visconti would zero in on the eccentricity that comes from this insular environment. The wealth that would survive beyond this difficult period of transition will inevitably fall to literal and metaphorical incest, but in The Leopard, this level of upper-class life has been treated with almost anthropological gloves. The generation of Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster) will be the last to survive before the world becomes industrialized and the revolution takes over. Well-dressed, perfectly mannered and emotionally stunted, these aristocrats go through the motions in a tomb of their own making. Any nostalgic yearning for this era has already been lost, and by the film’s final ball, the torch of privilege has already been passed on.
Claudia Cardinale’s entrance into the film immediately notes a change in the atmosphere of desire. Emerging with downcast eyes, she lightly bites her lip while her cream dress (with a violet flower held in her cleavage) captures everyone’s attention. From this moment on, her glowing beauty and outpouring of feeling will come to represent Italy’s future, which will eclipse the fading aristocratic way of life.
During a dinner party, Falconeri (Alain Delon) recounts stories of war, including a crude joke that leads Angelica to burst into a fit of laughter. Offended more by the outburst of the emotion than the joke itself, the table rises with a quiet rage. These offensive outbursts disrupt their guarded world, and already at this early stage, it seems as if the older generation knows they will lose out to the swift changes ushered in by women like Angelica. As much as the men around Angelica want to covet and commodify her beauty, above all else, they are threatened by it. Angelica and Falconeri have already been shaped by an expanding world, and there’s no going back from that.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.