Luchino Visconti examines class conflict in Italy with The Leopard
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“This isn’t the end of anything. It’s the beginning of everything.”
The Leopard epitomises Italy’s legacy of ambivalence with regard to its unification. It is not only a monument of cinema, but a representative of long-held beliefs that the unsuccessful (or only unceremonious?) attempts to break down or conveniently forget class distinctions, and to assimilate the Southern states into the kingdom of the North comprise a timeline of battles and wars that replace one ruling class with another. Today these states and these social classes, though no longer partly comprised only of those noble by birth, are still separated by gaping cultural divides. Based on the historical novel of the same name penned by Sicilian aristocrat Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and adapted for the screen by Luchino Visconti, a descendant of Milanese aristocracy, The Leopard chronicles about two years in the life of a fictional noble Sicilian family following the landing of Garibaldi in Palermo in 1860.
At the centre of the narrative, and seen largely with his thoughts and observations the pivotal point for the story, and for Visconti’s camera, is Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina and patriarch of the illustrious House of Salina. He is played by the blue-eyed, statuesque Burt Lancaster whose physical performance embodies the fading monuments of his noble ancestry and provides a kind of tent pole to so may of Visconti’s deep compositions.
Garibaldi fought to unite Italy under one monarchy, instrumental in the fall of the Bourbon Empire which then ruled most of the Southern regions of Italy, known as the Two Sicilys. It is important to observe that although Garibaldi was a revolutionary, his fight was not one against the concept of a ruling class, but to promote unification under a single empire with Victor Emmanuel, of the House of Savoy, as King.
The introduction of Tancredi, Fabrizio’s nephew, played by Alain Delon, is an integral part of Visconti’s vision. Tancredi is first seen in the reflection of the Fabrizio’s shaving mirror. He is a reflection of his uncle, and also a reflection of the next generation, a modern Italy, but perhaps most importantly, he is reflective, transparent. Tancredi is fickle. He adapts himself to suit his own ambitions, taking up first with the Garibaldini or Redshirts and later allying himself with the Royal army, as an officer, which was an advantage of many of the upper and middle class young men. “He follows the times, that’s all,” argues Fabrizio in a conversation with one of Donnafugata’s peasants. The poor did not join Garibaldi, as he was interested in upholding the social hierarchies, not dismantling them.
There are several dichotomies of social nature at work and how they are represented, and create and collapse on each other is expressed in a melancholic conversation between Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) and a visiting representative of the House of Savoy, paying a visit to seek the Prince as a member of the new Royal senate. The Prince, who does not believe Sicily or its people capable of any real change, attempts to explain that his place as aristocrat would not be possible without Sicily’s poor, “one is derived from the other”.
The film contains one battle scene early on, fought in the slums of Palermo, with Tancredi leading one of several groups of Redshirts against the Bourbon soldiers. In this scene we can also see the peasants of Palermo, including many women, fighting a separate battle against the ruling class, their oppressors. They chase a lone nobleman, possibly the mayor (he wears a top hat and sash) and hang him in the piazza. Here we see the chaos of the two battles that Italy is divided in, one between two monarchies, lead by Garibaldi, and the other (largely overlooked in terms of coverage in the film) of the fight of the plebiscite against the aristocracy. One battle must be won, in order to suppress the other.
Visconti’s frame is one of anarchy and fury, but the two battles occurring, though overlapping each other on the screen, are not in conflict. Tancredi politely requests of a peasant woman, in which direction has his enemy fled.
Visconti uses a recurring motif of chipped and decaying statues, still beautiful and ceremonious, however merely an echo of their former splendidness to represent the ruling class. He also, in effect, paints them into frames or has characters moving into their still portrait positions. The only undamaged idols we see are those in chapels. The role of Don Pirrone, the Prince’s priest, is an important one in the film, as he represents the church, that which traverses the social classes, and whom they must ultimately answer to. The church, however, has the same sense of custom of the aristocracy. We see the two united in the chapel at Donnafugata, where the family take their summer vacation. They sit still, covered in dust like relics or ghosts of themselves upon the eve of the referendum. Visconti and Lampedusa were both at odds with what exactly is lost in the overthrow of an aristocracy and there is a large contrast of movement and vibrancy in the final ball scene, and the elliptical dance between the Prince and Tancredi’s middle-class bride to be.
It is perhaps important to consider how Visconti, whose socialist sensibilities were in conflict with his birth right, managed to play out the ironies of Italy’s situation. Of course, he does so from a pedestal, and in effect his relationship to the character of the Prince, who is as often amused as he is saddened by the rise of the middle class, and whose point of view is one of condescension and not affection, is shared by the director to a degree. The film’s comedy is at the expense of the middle class who appear to be striving, and failing, to imitate aristocracy.
Italy remains a divided state with several distinct regions, speaking very different dialects and with separate, culturally rich histories. The Northern regions still think themselves superior, and the Southern regions are largely understood to be under mafia regime. The relationships between North and South remain, in many circles, to be that of a contentious nature. We see this identity crisis played out in programs like The Sopranos and in modern Italian cinema. Most recently Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (the title suggesting both the “camorra” or mafia, and the biblical story of Gomorrah and Sodom) shows us that the Milanese fashion industry would not be booming without the mafia-run imported Chinese sweatshops in Naples. One continues to derive from the other, and the legacy of i gattopardi endures.