Until the Risorgimento of 1839 Italy had been a cluster of feudal monarchies propped up by the crumbling Austrian Empire. Within a few years Garibaldi's vanguard of "Red Shuts" landed in Sicily and worked their way northwards against scattered resistance.
In their wake sprang up new-found patriots; the formerly weak middle class expanded to fill the economic and political vacuum left by the nobility. Garibaldi's liberating army was disbanded and bourgeois democracy instituted its own systems of privilege and exploitation; Italy had become a modern State.
In the words of de Lampedusa's great novel, echoed in Viscomi's worthy cinematic version: "Things must change a little in order to remain the same".
The leopard of the title is Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster), a characteristically blonde Bourbon noble whose domains are in ancient, sun-baked Sicily.
The great National upheaval is dramatically configured in the events affecting his family. The Prince himself is an exceptional embodiment of feudalism; dignified, benevolent, ironic, learned—he is an amateur astronomer of note, tolerant of human weakness and gently resistant of clerical interference in his affairs.
But-he is a man for whom the time is out of joint. He watches the bourgeoisie's miserable attempts to assume the trappings of nobility; whilst possessed of great qualities to help mould a new nation, he remains loyal to his class, which is now in historical eclipse. Sadly he declines an invitation to loin the new parliament:
"We were the lions and the leopards; those who take our place are wolves and jackals".Visconti, the nobly-born Marxist, bent his full creauve powers to understanding the past in order to explain the present.
It might be argued that the combination of Rotunno's cinematography, Garbuglia's design, Tosi's costumes and Rota's music (including a previously unperformed waltz by Verdi) amount to the most artistically splendid production values ever to grace a motion picture. Visconti's images are equally expressive in pictorial scope, symbolic structure and minute behavioural detail.
If one sequence stands out, it is the spectacle of the Prince and it's family attending Mass in a village Church; as they sit in their pew still coated with the dust of the journey, the camera slowly tracks past them; in their rigid dignity they seem already to have been judged by history, as elegant and lifeless as the emblems of piety which surround them.
This version is in Italian language and the original Eastman Color Technirama process; it contains an additional 20 minutes deleted from the English language version previously seen in Australian Theatres and television.