Luchino Visconti's elegiac 1963 masterpiece "The Leopard" recently came out as a state-of-the-art Criterion Collection DVD, but why would you want to watch one of the most beautiful films ever made on a TV when you can see it the way God, Visconti, and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno intended it?
The setting is Sicily in 1862, at the palace of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster), and the ancient world of princes is giving way to the modern era. Garibaldi and his followers are uniting Italy in the democratic uprising known as the risorgimento, an upheaval that will put an end to the independent papal states and principalities that have existed for millennia.
Don Fabrizio is resigned, even oddly elated. "I belong to an unfortunate generation, straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both," he tells a representative of the new government. "What is more, I am completely without illusions." Ironically enough, the prince's dashing young aristocrat nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon, absurdly handsome), also feels he's a practical man and has both fought at Garibaldi's side and later joined in betraying the Great Liberator.
His uncle approves and abets Tancredi's opportunism -- even backing his nephew's choice of a commoner for a bride (she's played by Claudia Cardinale at her most earthily radiant, so who can blame him?) -- even as he understands that it's all a game. "We were the leopards, the lions," says the prince. "Those who will take our place will be jackals, hyenas. And all of us -- leopards, lions, jackals, and sheep -- will go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth."
The film is a long, rich sigh at the end of the day, one that only Don Fabrizio can hear. With its epic battle scenes and brilliant costumes, this is an intensely lovely visual experience, but its feverish, hyperreal glow feels like nostalgia feeding on itself.
That ache is never more clear-eyed than in the famous ball sequence that ends "The Leopard," 45 minutes of cinematographic largesse in which we literally see the last waltz of the old order and the first of the new. The image of the vigorous prince beginning to falter is one of the hardest sights to bear in modern movies, and Lancaster gives the moment both elegance and weight. Even though he is dubbed, the actor considered Don Fabrizio his greatest role, and he's right. It's a royal performance in a majestic film.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.
Directed by: Luchino Visconti
Based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale
At: the Brattle, through Oct. 3
Running time: 185 minutes