The Leopard (1963, Luchino Visconti)

Here’s my email to Jimmy the next day.
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Time vs. The Leopard (or Burt’s Eyebrows: The Movie)

So it completely slipped my mind that I hate Italian movies, and I went to see The Leopard last night.

An IMDB reviewer says “To anyone interested in serious concerns, cinematically expressed with grace and intelligence, I would urge you to see this splendid film.”

Serious concerns? Concerns about what? About being serious? The movie is serious about being serious. It seems serious about the people of Sicily, about its sense of history and its future, and about our lead man Burt and his serious eyebrows and sideburns.

In the past few weeks I’ve watched movies by Bela Tarr, Wong Kar-Wai, and Luis Bunuel, plus The Double Life of Veronique and The Fountain. Been using all of those to think about how the movies present time, how they stretch time and contract time and enhance it and make it stop and start. It’s one of the main things movies do that other art forms don’t. It’s hard to change your sense of time with a play, with a painting.

The clock in White Hall to the left of the movie screen is stopped dead, and I liked to look over at it during The Leopard as if to confirm that the movie was frozen in a moment, that it was not progressing, that it had barely started and it was nowhere near the end. A great movie seems to fly by… I want to start it right up again after it ends, but then I notice the real time on the VCR clock, and remember that in real time, in my real day, two hours have gone by and I can’t play it again and I probably should be cleaning the office or going to bed. The Leopard left me with no such illusions. I felt the full force of all one hundred and eighty minutes… plus more minutes! The movie was even longer than it actually was! I feared that Visconti was filming new scenes while we watched, that the movie was looping itself, that the elderly couple behind me would not live to see the credits!

Nice restored print with very strong color. Good low-light and natural-light photography. The movie is a painting, with a painting’s sense of time. It wants to be looked at, but it does not propel you forward. Maybe people want this, to be slowed down, frozen in time focusing deeply on Burt Lancaster’s eyebrows and sideburns (an obsession of mine while the film was in progress), but I’m not so sure. I heard heavy sighs from the crowd, a few people left, at least one fell asleep, and some started talking and wandering around when one of them got a leg cramp. On my way out I walked past a couple discussing how the final dance sequence seemed way too long.

Was this done on purpose? As Prince Burt Fabrizio Lancaster is aging, thinking back on his life, thinking about the changes in Italy, watching the old power structure of which he is a part slowly decline, are we supposed to feel his sense of the moment stretching to the breaking point? Did the director know that the final dance sequence is way too long? Was he rudely extending the scene to force us into Burt’s mindset, to show us that from Burt’s age and position, this dressy ball is tiring and meaningless?

Sometimes when I notice that a movie is using longer-than-usual shots, I try counting shots to see just how long they are. At one point in The Leopard, I think they were running around five to six seconds on average, but it’s actually hard to count seconds in Leopard-time, which is more agonizingly slow than real time. When watching Werckmeister Harmonies (which I haven’t finished yet), I counted only eleven shots (plus or minus a couple) in the first forty minutes. And those forty minutes fly by! Bela Tarr expresses time in a mysterious and alluring way. Luchino Visconti (and Fellini, and Pasolini, and possibly Rossellini but probably not De Sica or Leone) expresses time in the most leaden way possible. I’m surprised that Visconti ever built up the energy to start filming. I’m sure, though, that he never stopped filming The Leopard, that the studio took what he’d shot so far and edited it into a movie. IMDB says he died 13 years after the movie’s release. There must be 13 years worth of deleted scenes, of sequel, of continuing ballroom dances and palaces in disrepair and golden harvest fields by moonlight, of candlelit interiors and Sicilian cityscapes at dusk, all sitting in a chest in Casa Visconti, waiting to be discovered by anyone bored enough to venture there. The ten thousand minute director’s cut!

Other notable things about the movie: Frenchman Alain Delon (of Le Samourai and L’Eclisse) as young rebel Tancredi… a DeNiro-looking priest who is omnipresent in the first half of the movie and strangely missing from the second half… all the young soldiers look like Cary Elwes… some pretty women (the prettiest of whom starred in Fellini’s 8 1/2 the same year)… and of course the lousy dubbing and sound design and the interruptive, full-of-itself Nino Rota score (Italians don’t seem to think that sound is an important part of a movie).

At the end of the movie, Burt Lancaster is old, he’s tired and he’s crying. And so am I. I drove straight home and trimmed my eyebrows.

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