- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

Burt Lancaster’s physical grace and assurance were such irresistible cinematic assets, particularly when he embodied athletic or dominating characters, that it’s sometimes easy to overlook how often he restrained himself.

The public didn’t necessarily feel as comfortable with a Lancaster under wraps. Who would want to do without the swashbuckling extrovert who invigorated “The Crimson Pirate,” “The Flame and the Arrow,” “From Here to Eternity,” “The Rainmaker,” “Elmer Gantry” and “The Scalphunters?” Fans were willing to play along with the actor’s need to go introspective and agonize from time to time, such as in “Separate Tables,” “Birdman of Alcatraz” and “Judgment at Nuremberg,” for example. Other stretching exercises, however, were overlooked.

One of the most impressive and haunting of Mr. Lancaster’s subdued performances passed his public by when “The Leopard,” now in revival at the AFI Silver Theatre, had its first run in 1963. Despite the prestige of a grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival and an advertising campaign that touted it as a historical spectacle in the tradition of “Gone With the Wind,” the movie encountered a solid wall of critical and popular resistance at first sight.

Or, more accurately, at first hearing.

The dialogue track of “The Leopard” in U.S. release posed a problem that lingered for 20 years. The current engagement at the Silver removes the obstacle: The management is hosting the Italian-language original, which didn’t surface as an art-house import until 1983.

A new DVD edition from the Criterion Collection preserves this version, as well as the English-language stumbling block that disappointed 20th Century Fox. The studio had a big stake in “The Leopard” and craved a successful mass release in the United States. Its version ran about 20 minutes shorter and restored the star speaking in his own familiar voice. Unfortunately, the European cast members, most of them Italian, acquired incongruous voices that seemed to cancel out the benefits of a vocally authentic Mr. Lancaster. It seemed better when Italian voices matched, even if the Lancaster substitute was a curious, unconvincing rasp.

A documentary retrospective called “A Dying Breed” enhances the DVD set. Regrettably, two indispensable collaborators died years ago: director Luchino Visconti in 1976, at 69, and Mr. Lancaster in 1994, at 80. The survivors include such well-informed colleagues as leading lady Claudia Cardinale; screenwriters Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Enrico Medioli; cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; art director Mario Garbuglia; costume designer Piero Tosi; and American director Sydney Pollack, who manfully takes the rap for supervising the English soundtrack.

“The Leopard” is faithfully derived from a best-selling historical novel of 1958, a surprise international success published shortly after the death of the author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, a cultivated Sicilian aristocrat. He became a literary legend posthumously by depicting a turning point 100 years earlier in the life of an aristocratic ancestor named Don Fabrizio Corbera, the prince of Salina.

An enlightened and commanding but painfully fatalistic embodiment of his class, Don Fabrizio resigns himself to the inevitability of dwindling influence and privilege during the political upheavals of 1860, when the old Bourbon monarchy is overthrown. The former Two Kingdoms of Sicily ” the island and the Naples area ” are annexed to a new constitutional monarchy based in Turin but intent on national reunification with Rome as the restored capital.

Depending on your susceptibilities, “The Leopard” may seem a supremely absorbing or a boring evocation of a bygone civilization. If you’re an admirer of the novel, it’s gratifying to see so many episodes transposed intact, then enhanced by a sophisticated filmmaking apparatus. Mr. Visconti, the offspring of an aristocratic Milanese family, directs with pictorial sweep and elegance. The Sicilian countryside and the scattered palatial residences described in the book are realized vividly. One’s admiration for the film’s pictorial richness is only deepened by sampling the recollections of its self-effacing craftsmen.

A prodigiously elegiac narrative, “The Leopard” may frustrate those expecting a protagonist who intends to struggle to protect an outmoded heritage. Don Fabrizio is beyond such impulses. He’s willing to make his peace with change as a rear-guard precaution ” and to advance the prospects of a beloved, dashing nephew, Tancredi, played by Alain Delon. He has given up, however, on himself and his own children as agents of renewal.

This renunciation never seems “right” or desirable. In one of the most eloquent scenes, Don Fabrizio refuses an offer from an emissary of the new government. He’s envisioned, very plausibly, as an adornment to the legislature. As far as one can see, it would be better for the prince, his family and his country if he accepted a leadership role in a changing Italy. He won’t or can’t, and the rejection is not just tinged with pathos. It seems an egotistic calamity, bad for the man and bad for his patrimony.

It became Mr. Lancaster’s task to embody this refined state of disenchantment. Resented by Mr. Visconti, who had other choices in mind, Laurence Olivier among them, the American star humbled himself on first joining the company. He gradually reconciled a demanding director, who spoke another language, to the inevitable.

One capital inspiration, according to Miss Cardinale, was to take Mr. Visconti as the handiest of all models for how Don Fabrizio should look and behave. Whatever the influences, the final result is imposing.

Mr. Lancaster inhabits his character with a distinctive authority and sorrow. Noble to behold in the wardrobe and surroundings of a Sicilian patriarch circa 1860, he makes Don Fabrizio’s Garbo-esque preference for early retirement seem a failure of will and imagination that carries enormous social costs. A man of such force and gravity shouldn’t be anticipating a slow descent into oblivion.


TITLE: “The Leopard”

RATING: MPAA rating (Made in 1963, before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter, with elements of sensuality and scenes of warfare in a mid-19th-century setting)

CREDITS: Directed by Luchino Visconti. Screenplay by Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Enrico Medioli, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosacq on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno. Art direction by Mario Garbuglia. Costumes by Piero Tosi. Music by Nino Rota. In Italian with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.leopardthemovie.com? this doesn’t work.- tl www.criterionco.com/asp/release.asp?id=235 (for DVD)

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: Through Thursday

ADMISSION: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students with valid IDs and seniors (65 and older)

PHONE: 301/495-6720

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