The Leopard (1963)
2.21:1 Italian Version and 2.35.1 (16x9 Enhanced) U.S. Version
Dolby Digital Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $49.95

“We were the leopards, the lions; those who will take our place are jackals, hyenas,” mourns Don Fabrizio Corbera (Burt Lancaster), Prince of Salina, in Luchino Visconti’s lyric masterpiece The Leopard (Il Gattopardo). Set in 1860, the year Garibaldi’s troops raided the southern provinces during Italy’s “Risorgimento,” this intimate and often mournful epic presents the reality of Italy’s political climate during the unification, and details how this change affected the lives of those torn between the romance of the past and the desire for progress.

As Visconti’s epic begins, the country’s aristocracy faces the country’s impending unification with grim repose. Aware that his aristocratic breeding and position will not survive the modern Italy, Don Fabrizio tries to hold his family together. In addition to his seven children, his nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), is a treasured part of his clan. When the brash Tancredi, eager for the changes promised by unification, announces his engagement to the politically prominent but vulgar beauty Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), Don Fabrizio understands the choice and wearily gives his blessing, knowing that his timid daughter Concetta, smitten with Tancredi, will be heartbroken.

Sumptuously photographed by Visconti’s frequent collaborator Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC (Rocco and His Brothers, Amarcord, All That Jazz), The Leopard is one of the cinema’s most revered works of color cinematography. Rotunno’s saturated hues and incredible use of light (often natural) were motivated primarily by paintings from the period, and give the film an elegant sheen. The opulent, detailed images were filmed using the anamorphic 2.21:1 Technirama process, whose slightly taller frame enabled Rotunno to include the grand ceilings in many interiors with as little anamorphic distortion as possible. For his incandescent efforts, Rotunno was awarded the trophy for Best Color Cinematography by the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists in 1963. (Decades later, he was honored with the ASC International Achievement Award.)

For The Leopard’s debut on U.S. home video, The Criterion Collection has produced a remarkable, three-platter DVD package. Disc One contains the feature presentation, a shimmering picture transfer of Rotunno’s work. The cinematographer supervised the high-definition transfer himself, and the results are phenomenal. Digitally scrubbed of any print flaws, it is as close to its intended theatrical presentation as possible, with all of the complicated lighting setups perfectly realized.

The feature has also been restored to its 185-minute running time, re-creating Visconti’s original vision. The monaural audio track has been given a 24-bit digital upgrade and is full and rich, displaying not a trace of its age. Another audio option is an exceptional commentary by historian Peter Cowie, who engages the listener for over three hours with a detailed analysis of the film, historical facts and production anecdotes.

Disc Two presents a number of well-produced supplemental features, including a 13-minute segment with historian Millicent Marcus, who summarizes the politics and history of Italy’s “Risorgimento”; a gallery of theatrical trailers; a terrific 20-minute interview with producer Goffredo Lombardo, who discusses how The Leopard drove his company to bankruptcy; and a truly impressive 60-minute documentary entitled A Dying Breed: The Making of the Leopard, which sheds much light on the production and on Visconti. The producers of this disc have outdone themselves with the gathering of international participants involved in the documentary; Rotunno, actress Claudia Cardinale, screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico, art director Mario Garbuglia, costume designer Piero Tosi, filmmaker Sydney Pollack (who directed the dubbing of the truncated U.S.-release version) and several others flesh out this extraordinary featurette.

Finally, Disc Three contains a decent anamorphic transfer of the much-maligned U.S. version of the film, which runs 161 minutes and serves mostly as a curiosity. The English-language version was not very successful, and it’s not difficult to see why. Stripped of so much material, it cannot possibly convey the grandeur that Don Fabrizio sees slipping through his fingers as the unification permeates the countryside.

Don Fabrizio and his kind are relics in the new world, and the legendary aristocratic opulence that The Leopard lovingly depicts has been carefully preserved by The Criterion Collection in this lavish tribute to an extraordinary filmmaker.

— Kenneth Sweeney

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.