Visconti's 1963 Palme D'Or winner is epic film making in the best sense, recording the consequences of revolution and social change upon an aristocratic family, headed by Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster). Their Sicilian paradise is threatened by the rise of the Risorgimento, the political movement which included Garibaldi, which set out to unite the states of Italy and instigate a new social order - that of democracy and the rise of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the aristocracy. Visconti had personal reasons to make this film. He was from aristocratic stock himself, but also considered himself a Communist. This conflict between his background and his political thinking is apparent in this film, and also explains why he is able to handle the material so sensitively, sympathetically and without judgement.
The film's opening scenes are a masterclass in cinematography as Giuseppe Rotunno's (who worked on several Fellini films) camera roams around the sprawling country estate of the Salina family. Their communal prayers are then interrupted by news of rioting in the city (a dead soldier is found in the garden) and the fleeing of several similarly aristocratic families. This is one of several superb set pieces that Visconti choreographs. The battle scenes between Garibaldi's Red Shirts and loyalist forces which inspired Scorsese's 'Gangs of New York' (Scorsese is a fervent admirer of this film) and the astounding 45 minute ballroom sequences which concludes the film are amongst the most memorables scenes you will ever see in the cinema.
As the momentum towards Italian unification is in full flow, Don Prince Fabrizio tries to remain as pragmatic as he can despite the impending replacement of his social class by another (the aspiring middle classes). He accepts it's just the substitution of political groups; that the middle classes just want to replace the upper classes, not destroy them. In a conversation with a Father, he notes that in a world of radical change, the church has immortality, social classes do not. The church manages to co-exist with the new ruling class rather well. Further evidence of how much the Salina family's world is in flux is shown in the marriage of Prince Don Fabrizio's nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon) to Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of a wealthy merchant and politician. Whilst not a marriage of convenience, it is mentioned that her family has considerable wealth, even if she lacks the manners and values of aristocratic birth. Don Prince Fabrizio defends the union, that they must move with the times and it is best for the survival of the family, even though the rest of his family largely disapprove, stating that it is tantamount to surrendering to their enemies.
Visconti also shows that even during periods of great upheaval, normality is restored very quickly. As said, all the revolutionaries genuinely believed in was substituting one ruling class with another. The church was restored and respected. Aristocrats were invited to sit in the Senate (which Don Prince Fabrizio rejects). Garibaldi's unruly rebels just morphed into a respectable army under the command of King Emmanuel the Second. As Tancredi, who is more adept at changing with the times than anyone else explains; "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change", whilst his uncle remains far more rueful about what has been lost.
'The Leopard' is a stunning achievement. Three hours long but without any padding - every minute of this film matters. Visconti documents a snapshot of Italian history with such meticulous detail and insight. Watch the effort that goes into the ballroom sequence, with hundreds of extras and elaborate costumes. Whilst the plaudits will naturally be the director's, the cast are all superb and Visconti's co-writers collaborate on a perfect script. Virtually flawless. 5/5