Luchino Visconti was a director whose career appeared to embrace many contradictions. How did the progenitor of Italian neorealism, with its emphasis on naturalistic mise en scene, eventually turn towards making grand, operatic costume dramas? Salvador Dali described him as “a Communist who only liked luxury”; how could a man who held strongly Marxist beliefs also so fervently defend his own aristocratic stock? And why were his films, whose adaptation from historical and literary sources might appear to be what Truffaut contemptuously labelled cinéma de papa, so praised by André Bazin and the Cahiers du cinéma crowd?
These questions are raised when watching The Leopard, but so too are they answered. In order to more fully understand why, though, we must tell not only the story of the film and its relationship to the director, but also the source novel, its author, and first to the political events which provide its backdrop. The historical period in question is the Risorgimento, the series of conflicts which led to the formation into a single political entity of the Italian peninsula, and specifically within this the events of 1860 which eventually saw Garibaldi's army, aided by local militias rebelling against the ruling Bourbon monarchy, annex the island of Sicily, allowing them a march on Naples.
Author Giuseppe Tomasi was born in Sicily in 1896 into an aristocratic family, inheriting the title of Prince of Lampedusa on the death of his father some 36 years later. In 1958, a year after his death, what would be his only novel, Il Gattopardo, was published; in the book, a Sicilian prince not unlike the author but living some one hundred years earlier witnesses the profound political upheavals brought about by Garibaldi's invasion with a mixture of sadness and bemused detachment. The book proved to be divisive: derided by the Left as an apology for imperialism, criticised by conservatives for its portrayal of a corrupt self-serving Church, but loved by just about everyone else for its sensuous, languorous prose, it went on to become an international bestseller.
Who better to adapt the novel for the screen than Luchino Visconti? Like Lampedusa, he had been brought up in a noble household, albeit at the northern end of the country in Milan, but one who could well empathise both with Lampedusa himself and his literary protagonist. True, he had made his cinematic name with the realist likes of Ossessione (1943), La Terra Trema (1950) and Rocco e i suoi fratelli (1960) but so too had he demonstrated his ability to stage opulent historical drama in the spectacular Senso (1954). In fact, in a similar way to how Ingmar Bergman is remembered in Sweden as equally for his theatre work as his film output, in his native country Visconti was just as noted a director of grand operas as man of realist cinema.