A Sicilian family - headed by Prince Don Fabrizio - struggling to maintain their power in the midst of radical change in 1950's Italy.
‘Things must change a little, so they can stay the same,’ decrees the dignified, almost mummified Prince, but in an alien Italian voice that sounds strange coming from the familiar gritted teeth of an iconic Burt Lancaster.
Hailed as Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece, this is a very personal film about the Sicilian aristocracy during a crucial period in the history of Italy (the ‘Risorgimento’), but also a sumptous, if chilly epic in which everything is shown in long- or medium-shots and strait-laced characters wander through huge, luxurious, fading rooms or discuss in the abstract the superficial political and cultural changes which il Principe trusts his own class will weather.
It’s a very deliberately-paced three hours (the Godfather films take their leisurely tone from Il Gattopardo) and a great deal of what happens isn’t exactly clear, but it has a magnificence that’s undeniable. Lancaster, grizzled but perfectly coiffeured, is the heart of the film and, it is suggested, his homeland, but Visconti’s camera loves the cold beauty of il Principe’s unprincipled, fit-to-survive nephew Tancredi (Delon) and, even more, the sheer presence of Claudia Cardinale.
Fans of spaghetti Westerns will find Mario Girotti (aka Terence Hill of the Trinity films) and Giuliano Gemma (of the Ringo films) in a very different mood, gussied up in handsome uniforms and propped up on the sidelines. Most of the last hour is devoted to a lavish ball, from magnificent entrances through to the final tidying-up, with the stately, sweating, fan-fluttering aristocrats on show for perhaps the last time and Lancaster joining Cardinale for an elegant dance.
Lancaster's portrayal of the Don's chilly steel is immense, transforming The Leopard into being more than just good, but something truly special.