The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963)

What's it about? Set in 19th century Sicily at the time of the Italian Risorgimento, when the aristocracy lost its grip and the peasant classes rose up to form a unified, democratic Italy. The film focuses on Prince Fabrizio of Salina (Burt Lancaster), who foresees the downfall of his noble family and has resigned himself to the changing face of Italian society.

Is it any good? I see the word 'sumptuous' used a lot in reviews of this film, and with good reason, for this is a really beautiful looking film. From the exterior shots of the sun-drenched Sicilian scenery, to the extravagant set design of the interiors, to the gorgeous Oscar-winning costume design, it really is like a painting come to life. And that's before we even mention Alain Delon's cheekbones and Claudia Cardinale's heaving bosom, which are also very easy on the eye. But this story is about the loss of such opulence, and there's also a subtle sense of fading grandeur around the edges of the beauty on display, which aptly reflects the changing fortunes of the noble classes. It is this element that concerns Fabrizio, and much of the actual story is about his sad acceptance of the times-a-changing in his native land. As such, it's a stately, elegiac lament for the loss of a way of life and therefore it's a rather slow film, taking a long time to make its points about class, history and politics, not all of which are that riveting. I confess I whiled away some segments by reflecting on the various influences on The Godfather films, rather than the film's story (more of that below). For that reason, I don't think it quite lives up to its reputation, despite being an impressive piece of film-making. Still, it does feature an immense turn by Burt Lancaster, sporting an outstanding eyebrow-moustache-sideburn combo, who exudes dignity, class, sadness and real star power as the 'Leopard' of the title. Even dubbed into Italian, his performance is spot-on (sorry, couldn't resist).

I don't trust you. What do others think? The Leopard had a particular impact upon Italian-American filmmakers, with Martin Scorsese and Michael Cimino both considering it one of the best films ever made. Perhaps the biggest influence can be seen in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, which is also a story of a powerful patriarch and his family. The celebratory ball which takes up the final third of The Leopard was mimicked by Coppola in the extended wedding sequence of The Godfather, in which the plot and power games play out against scenes of familial celebration and dancing. Likewise, the Sicilian scenes in The Godfather borrow the same warm colour palette from The Leopard and the stirring music of Nino Rota accompanies both films, further emphasising the thematic similarities in the two films. In fact, come to think of it, The Godfather is pretty much a direct remake, only with more death and horse's heads and less ballgowns.

Anything else I should know? This was apparently Lancaster's favourite film role, but it was one that he had to fight for, since Visconti was more keen on Laurence Olivier for the part. The producers insisted on Lancaster, though, causing tension with Visconti. However, it all ended happily when star and director met and got on famously, remaining friends long after the filming was finished.

What does the Fonz think? A feast for the eyes

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