Luchino Visconti was himself an aristocrat. He grew up in privilege, as part of a family of immense wealth.
But he recast himself into an ardent socialist; a believer in the equality of all men. And this belief inspired all his work, especially his strong early neo-realist Italian cinema.
The Leopard is however quite a dispassionate movie. There's no explicit condemnation here of aristocracy and inherited wealth -- that's implicit as we look at the sumptuous settings and lifestyle of these Sicilian aristocrats in the Italy of the 1860s, as the new Italy, led by Garibaldi, began to shift power from these bastions of entrenched privilege.
This three-hour epic is told through the eyes of a Sicilian Prince, Don Fabrizio, played with huge dignity and strength by Burt Lancaster. Visconti had wanted Laurence Olivier in this role, but his producers, with an eye on the US market, fortunately insisted on Burt.
Of course, now we could imagine no-one else as the Don. This is one of Burt Lancaster's finest screen roles, on par with his appearances in The Swimmer and Conversation Piece. His presence is overwhelming -- he provides a central core to the movie which resonates with maturity and depth.
The Don observes the profound changes in his society, but cannot himself change. He is able also to watch the change through the actions of his favourite nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who is an active player in the Italian revolution -- a follower of the leader Garibaldi.
We see the change also through the actions of another Don -- a much more lower-class and venal Don, Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), who is able to climb aboard and profit from the new band-wagon. That obsequious and grasping Don uses his intensely beautiful and earthy daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) to bridge what was earlier an insurmountable gap between the two families - the times they are a'changin.
This film is of epic proportion and sweep. The story is told slowly, because this is a requiem to Don Fabrizio's past. But the sweep and grandeur is compelling and utterly absorbing. There have been few scenes in cinema to compare with the beauty and richness -- and acute character-observation -- of the 45-minute Ballroom scene which provides the climax of the movie. This movie is Visconti's masterpiece.
For this Region Four release, Madman has had a PAL transfer prepared from the meticulous frame-by-frame film transfer undertaken in America by the Criterion company. The quality is, as a result, outstanding.
Colours are breathtakingly vivid. Outdoor sequence shine with a revelatory translucency. The indoor sequences, particularly during the famous Ballroom scene, feature precise imagery which seems to reveal even more detail than I observed in the recent restored-print cinema season.
The image is slightly cropped on one side, bringing ratio to 2.20:1 compared to original release ratio of 2.35:1. This stems from the Criterion transfer, and is virtually unnoticeable on screen.
The 5.1 Surround track is a fine restoration job. It really is the original stereo track meticulously restored, with some added Surround warmth. Most sound remains, however, quite firmly centred, and it's a surprise when a wide stereo effect is detected.
The very clear sound brings out to the fullest effect the soundtrack score by Nina Rota. It's one of the finest scores created by this fine composer.
Purists will enjoy the presence too of the original stereo sound, but the 5.1 track was my preferred track.