Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Leopard restored

To the British Film Insitute, for a screening of the Luchino Visconti's classic The Leopard (Il Gattopardi), which has been restored to its sumptuous glory. If this doesn't make you want to visit, or re-visit, Sicily, I doubt anything can.

I had wondered why this sprawling, slow moving study of political and social change seemed to have vanished from cinema and television. The reason was that it become badly scratched and worn with time. The impressive digital restoration involved over 12,000 hours of manual work.

Now the parched summer interior of Sicily, the choking heat, the architecture, lavish fixtures and furnishings are all sharply defined again. Scenes stick in the mind. The opening shots, moving in on the Prince of Salina's (the eponymous Leopard) seat near Palermo with a light, hot breeze stirring the trees; the morning hunting near the family's palace at Donnafugata, with golden views of the distant hill town (this is not the Donnafugata you will find on Sicilian maps, though Giuseppe Thomaso di Lampedusa, who wrote the magnificent novel on which the movie is based, may have based aspects of his description on it); and of course, the final ball scene, lasting some 45 minutes. Many scenes have your eyes urgently ranging the screen as you try to take in every detail and nuance of expression.

This is not the shorter, dubbed version I saw long ago. It lasts 3hrs 5mins and is in Italian, with sub titles. Burt Lancaster, who took the title role, was apparently third choice after Nicolai Cherkasov, who played the lead in Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky - and Laurence Olivier. He was contracted behind Visconti's back but it turned out to be an inspired piece of casting.

The long solo, wordless scene, shortly before the end, in which the Prince, contemplates his own mortality while studying the deathbed portrayed in Jean-Baptiste Greuze's painting, The Punishment of the Son" is a rivetting tour de force.

The film opens to the public on 27 August at the British Film Institute on the Southbank, the Curzon Mayfair, Richmond Filmhouse, Filmhouse Edinburgh,
Cambridge Arts Picturehouse and the Irish Film Institute in Dublin

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