Luchino Visconti, whose films tend to be long and rather slow moving, is not a filmmaker for everyone. That certainly was the feeling of the American distributor in 1963 when The Leopard first hit U.S. movie screens. Visconti’s film weighed in at a whopping 205 minutes, and 20th Century Fox execs felt stuck with an unwieldy movie that would not — as had been hoped — benefit from the presence of movie star Burt Lancaster. So they did what many distributors before and since have done — they unceremoniously hacked some 40 minutes out of the movie, and, to add a further insult, inflicted the film with a badly dubbed English-language soundtrack.
The alternations were not successful. Visconti is one of those filmmakers — Carl Theodore Dreyer being another — whose work can, of course, be shortened, but it cannot be speeded up. As a result, what they ended up with was a 163-minute, slow-moving movie that made no one happy. Visconti himself disowned this version.
But the story doesn’t end there. After Visconti’s death, the film’s cinematographer, Giusseppe Rotunno (perhaps best known for his work with Fellini), supervised a restoration that brought the film up to 183 minutes. Though still more than 20 minutes shy of Visconti’s original, this is nonetheless much closer to the film that he intended.
One thing is immediately clear: This film was never intended to be a fast-paced work. It’s a sad, leisurely meditation about the passing of an era, the awareness of one aging aristocrat (Lancaster) that his world is dying along with himself, and his attempts to secure as much of that world as possible.
The fascinating thing about all this is that though Visconti was of aristocratic descent, he was a Marxist who, in broad strokes at least, had no use for the ruling class. Still, he was able to see the basic decency in some members of that class, and that’s what’s at the heart of his film — and what gives it a dramatic tension it might otherwise lack.
As filmmaking, The Leopard is unreservedly beautiful and daring in its pacing — especially during in the extended (about 45-minute) ball sequence that climaxes the movie. That sequence — which is deeply complex but offers very little in the way of overt explanation — is one of the glories of cinema and a monument to the collaboration of the director and his star.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of The Leopard at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 20, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the second light onto Thompson Street, and follow to end.)]