I might have enjoyed this film a bit more if either I knew more about Italian history or cared more about the pageantry and lifestyle of the royalty class. I might also have enjoyed it if the film cared more about this story. I neither know nor care about either one, and it seemed the film didn’t either, so this came across as more like a long and plodding filmic throwback.
Set in the 1800s, during and after the tumultuous Unification of Italy, “The Leopard” is the story of Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster), a minor Sicilian prince. He has been leading his family through a sort of comfortably idle life; overseeing the daily family prayers, keeping the peace between his son and three daughters, coordinating family movements between their three mansions, and grooming his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) as the family heir; Tancredi is sweet on his daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi), so it’ll serve the family even better. But when a war breaks out against the ruling class, lead by nationalist Giuseppe Girabaldi, Tancredi is swayed by the romance of the cause and joins Girabaldi’s ranks. And Don Fabrizio….just lets him, figuring he’ll get bored eventually and come home.
Fortunately Tancredi does. But the Girabaldis have done their work; Italy is now to be a unified nation, and the various ruling families have lost a good deal of their political power and prestige. Meanwhile, some middle-class families have gained some privilege – like Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), mayor of the small town near one of the Corbera’s mansions. Sedara pays a visit to the Corberas soon after Tancredi’s return, bringing his pretty daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale); Tancredi gets his head turned, and so does Don Fabrizio a bit. And when Tancredi announces he plans to marry Angelica instead….Don Fabrizio shrugs and figures eh, she’s rich, it’ll be a good match for Tancredi. Also, that kind of match makes a bit more sense in the new Italy.
That’s….kind of all that happens for much of the film, I’m afraid. Don Fabrizio notices something is changing, and he lets it happen, and life goes on. He’s offered the chance to join in the new Italian Senate, but turns it down, and life goes on. Tancredi changes his mind about who he’s marrying, Don Fabrizio shrugs, and life goes on.
And then there is a high-society ball which takes up nearly the final hour of the film. Tancredi is there to introduce Angelica to society; Don Fabrizio is there with his wife to carry on custom. And for a good 45 minutes, we watch as the younger couples dance and the older folks gossip, as Don Fabrizio aimlessly wanders around the mansion looking at the paintings and getting bummed out about the nobility getting tossed over. Angelica insists she dance with him at one point, and he does, but it doesn’t lift his mood. And the movie ends soon after.
Now, this ball scene was supposed to be a lavish look at the lifestyle which was on its way out, and I could tell I was supposed to be mourning its passing along with Don Fabrizio. But instead of lavish and genteel, it felt silly and pointless – and coming after Don Fabrizio’s relative inactivity throughout, I didn’t even get why he was lamenting its passing in the first place. If we’d seen a bit more about Don Fabrizio’s way of life before this – seen what kind of political influence he had, or seen him throw a livelier ball of his own – perhaps that would have made more of an impression. But putting the ball at the very end, after Don Fabrizio spent the whole film talking about accepting change, just made it look dull and vapid and reinforced that he’d made the right decision – so it made no sense he was upset about it.
So ultimately I was quite bored; this was a pretty adaptation of an ultimately dull story which I wasn’t all that interested in to begin with.