Wednesday, February 9, 2011
The Leopard: An Appreciation of the Theatrical Experience
"Something will have to change, for everything to stay the same," or so the rough translation goes. It's a thought repeated twice throughout Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, and the second time it's uttered, here by Burt Lancaster's majestic Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, it's with a whimper of dignified resignation. He has come to understand that the life of decadence his class has been privileged must end and make way for a new order, even if the new will ultimately resemble the old. Indeed, by the end of the film, we meet the new boss, who is born in a lavish ballroom wedding that doubles as the funeral party for the old aristocracy. Fabrizio has time to come to terms with his fate, but that doesn't make his heartbreak any less palpable. Once more, he is a good man, a great man even, and it's devastating to watch Garibaldi's revolution make him a kind of sacrificial lamb. Yet as breeding and birthright compel him, he weathers it with grace. That is what the regal leopard does.
Lancaster is the princely model of physical strength, yet fraught with fragile emotion that will from time to time bubble to the surface. His presence in a foreign production (even of this caliber) is atypical for an American actor of the time, though soon to become a bona-fide trend, one that he, along with Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders a decade earlier, helped pave the way for. But his talents truly show here, and his interpretation of the proud and wounded Fabrizio stands as one of the ten best performances ever put to film (dubbing be damned, proof this can still be the universal medium). And it's not as if he's the only one pulling his weight. There's Claudia Cardinale, who heaves and quivers more convincingly than any actress I've ever seen, and is treated, as are we, to the greatest entrance among the cast. Romolo Valli's Father Pirrone racks up one hysterical moment after another, Rina Morelli's aging Princess conveys with volume the fears the Fabrizio so carefully restrains, and Lucilla Morlacchi successfully carries the burden of justifying, to both the audience and her father, exactly why it's time to put the old aristocracy to rest. Lastly, there's Alain Delon, displaced like Lancaster and at the top of his game, though the difference here is that the dashing Frenchman makes it all look easy. Adorned in the most opulent costumes ever captured on film, the cast comes together in a cinematic epic for the ages. Visconti was never better, and you'd be mad to think anyone could be.
Ah, time for context. Not that I'm not allowed to extol the virtues of any film I damn well please from this little pulpit I built for myself in this largely unexplored swatch of the internet jungle, but it's not been that long since I covered Visconti's masterpiece as part of my Top 100 Films countdown. But this was the occasion, a newly restored print of The Leopard screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and there was no way I was going to pass up the opportunity to see one of my favorite films on 35 mm (An opportunity that was unheard of while I was in Michigan, but I'm going to have to get used to now. The Siskel is also showing Repulsion, Cache, and Eyes Without a Face, and that's just this month!). In short, nothing could have kept me away from the theater tonight, and I'm immeasurably glad that I went. To all film lovers out there, never pass up a chance to see a favorite (or perhaps a classic you've never caught up with) on the big screen, especially if we're talking celluloid. If you think some time that you could never love a film more, then just wait till you see it projected in a black box, surrounded by dozens of other lifelong students of cinema.
I sound like I'm romanticizing the experience, but there's a genuine rush from the communion of viewers, not just in this theater, but across every theater showing the film (in this case, The Leopard) stretching all the way back to its premier (in this case, in 1963). Put less arduously, tonight I watched The Leopard as if for the first time, regardless of the fact is was my third. The colors and costumes exploded like they never had before (credit to the marvelous restoration for that) and the panoramic Italian vistas were never more breathtaking. And here I found proof that some films just haven't been seen until they've been beheld at the cinema. From my 17 inch computer monitor, I could recognize the brilliance of The Leopard, and even fall hard and fast for its scope and performances, but tonight I felt the electricity of one of the great films of all time, and that's something only a handful of my favorites can boast. If you'll pardon the ridiculously obvious (groan-inducing, even) comparison, it was the difference between seeing a leopard caged up at a zoo and observing one free in the wild. The moral of the story: let's never forget that the place to see movies is the theater, because that will be the day that cinema drops dead.