Over the course of this series on movies and their alter egos, three of the first six exist in more than one language (four if you count the transition from silence to sound for The Gold Rush), one changed aspect ratios, and one was significantly shortened by its studio. The next film I’ve selected, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, fits into all of these categories. Often described as the Italian Gone with the Wind, The Leopard is set during the Risorgimento, the revolutionary movement that unified Italy under a new flag in the 1860s. Enduring, and sometimes participating in, these changes is an aristocratic family in Sicily led by Don Fabrizio Corbera, played by Burt Lancaster. The actor’s lines were dubbed into Italian for the domestic release, naturally, but his original dialogue was preserved for the English-language release in the United States. In the interest of making the film still more accessible to American audiences, Twentieth Century-Fox called for cuts to the film’s three-hour-plus running time. The curtailed version of the film was received indifferently, and a proper reappraisal of The Leopard wasn’t possible until the original Italian cut made its way here in the 1980s.
The 185-minute Italian-language film and the 161-minute English-language film are the two versions included on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray, but The Leopard has been projected publicly in two other forms as well. For its Rome premiere in March 1963, the film clocked in at over 200 minutes. By the time it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where it eventually won the top prize, it was somewhat shorter. Visconti was a willing participant in these changes, and he referred to the eventual 185-minute cut as his preferred version. The further paring of the film for its release Stateside, however, happened against his wishes. Fox also cropped the film to the standard CinemaScope width (2.35:1), doing away with the distinctive 2.21:1 aspect ratio that Visconti intended. So, in two separate ways, to see the English-language cut is to miss some of the movie.
The consensus is that the only reason to choose the inferior cut is for the purpose of hearing Lancaster’s voice, and I really can’t disagree. The American version isn’t a disaster by any means, but the changes slowly accumulate to make it less authentic. The dubbing of the European actors into English works as well as could be expected. Italian films were frequently dubbed anyway, whether for convenience or artistic reasons. So one version of The Leopard is closer to La Dolce Vita, while the other is closer to A Fistful of Dollars. The only onscreen change in the American cut is a couple paragraphs of scrolling text after the credits, briefly explaining the historical context and explicitly referring to Fabrizio as the “leopard” of the title, an honorific that will be explained in dialogue much later in the film. I don’t mind this addition, since I myself knew practically nothing about the relevant history until this week, but it clearly marks a change in intended audience. The allusion to Gone with the Wind, with its lyrical opening text, was probably intentional as well.
With those details out of the way, only one question remains: what’s missing? Twenty-four minutes, or 13% of the definitive version, were deemed unnecessary. In a few cases, entire scenes were excised, but for the most part, the cuts were to individual moments in extended sequences. The Leopard is not a plot-heavy film. Its concerns are with the leisure activities of the wealthy, and the camera’s grand canvas is used to linger on the beauty of the film’s settings and performers rather than to fly from one crisis to another. The movie’s catchphrase is “For things to stay the same, everything must change.” After watching it, one is tempted to flip those statements around (“plus ça change…“). The revolution upends the social order, allowing the bourgeoisie to join the aristocracy, but nothing gets burned down. There’s a quiet ambivalence in the film, a nostalgia for inherited opulence coupled with an understanding of how ridiculous upper-class people could be. Almost without exception, the cuts made for the American version soften or muddle these themes.
There are still some memorable instances of the aristocracy at play in the shorter version, but a few are removed: a brief shot of Fabrizio reading; a soldier’s singing recital, at which more than one member of the audience starts to nod off; a confrontational game of whist. Early in the film, Father Pirrone, a friend of Fabrizio’s, talks about the strange standards of the nobles with some unnamed companions while Fabrizio and his family sleep. The other end of the social ladder is much less visible even in the longer version, but there are a couple noteworthy moments involving servants that were removed from the American cut. First is simply a shot of a picnic blanket being carefully folded, a distinguished but easily overlooked task. Second is the serving of dessert at a banquet, interrupting a bawdy war story. The reader may understand how each of these moments might be viewed as expendable, but taken together, they have something to say about the society in question.
It’s been claimed that much of the foreshortening of the film happens during the extended ball sequence at the end, but I did not find this to be true. Close to fifty minutes in length in the 185-minute version, the sequence is only about five minutes shorter in the other version. Shots of characters mingling are shortened or removed for no discernible purpose and to no discernible effect. The only real incident that got taken out is the moment when Fabrizio’s nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) introduces his fiancee Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) to some of his friends, and they ask her to put their names on her dance card. Far more notable than any of this is the removal of any mention of Angelica’s mother from the story. This character represents the strangest and most evocative social commentary in the film, a woman of incredible beauty kept hidden from society because of her peasant status and uncouth temperament. Never mind that the sensation of dancing all night is ever-so-slightly less pronounced in the shorter version. The true bereavement is the loss of the image of the veiled woman at early-morning mass.
The Leopard was an international production that got split in two in order to maximize its appeal on two continents. Looking back, this is mostly regrettable. The English-language film is best preserved as a historical document. The greatness of Lancaster’s performance has little to do with his voice. It has to do with the careful use of his imposing stature, threaded with a sensitive portrayal of the effects of aging. Visconti captures the waning years of this Sicilian big cat, and the rise of the coarser next generation, with a stately and somber gaze. To an audience accustomed to Hollywood spectacle, this story might not seem to call for a three-hour treatment. But as an elegy for a civilization, shot through with world-class pageantry, it absolutely does.