Luchino Visconti's The Leopard

...characters parade their ornate gowns from scene to scene in all their garish beauty.

by Rosie Jackson
When Hollywood calls on European milieux for ideas, the filmic result is often a gaudy caricature of an idealised history. Refreshing, then, that what 1963 film The Leopard gives us is a timeless window onto the gilded dreams and grisly baroque of Sicily in mourning. Adapted from the best-selling Italian novel in existence, Gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Luchino Visconti's film is a sensual, brooding account of Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi's passage through Sicily with his red-shirted thousand, the climax of the country's long-winded unification which ended with the Franco-Prussian war in 1871.

The novel was born from the author's preoccupation with his great-grandfather, another Prince of Lampedusa; Tomasi's beloved inheritance, the Lampedusa palace, was destroyed in World War Two - the greatest tragedy of his own lifetime. Unsurprisingly The Leopard seethes with rotting skeletons, crumbling architecture and displaced riches, very much like contemporary Sicily's Palermo.

The story starts with the aristocratic family of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina in Sicily, the victims of Garibaldi's slow overthrow of the island's class system. Visconti's world is one populated by swishing umbrella skirts and crumbling statues. The immaculate interiors of the Prince's three palatial residences drip with the leftovers of Sicilian baroque: rococo furniture in ochre, poppy and mint, Persian tapestries, tiled floors sprouting open blooms and artful chiaroscuro.

The movements of the Salina family - the Prince, his wife Maria Stella, his three daughters, and a nephew Tancredi, are mostly unremarkable. But they encapsulate the crushing disappointments of this dying age, peppered as they are with visual metaphors, omens, and an overwhelming sense of loss.

A household says grace in a candy-striped drawing room. Dogs the size of small horses course through gold-leafed corridors, where walls strain under the weight of the prince's ancestors. Their lives run like clockwork amidst a sea of age-old rituals, sober as a mourner's, imprisoned in a glistening palace.

The most mournful is the indomitable Burt Lancaster as the Prince. With beastly eyebrows underlining his crinkled brow, and straw coloured leonine locks match his sand-encrusted mansion, he appears statuesque before an open window in a quilted paisley bath robe, in silk braces and seal-coloured velvet, stroking the furry belly of a hanging rabbit, or flouting the dusty Saharan sirocco in a spotted navy cravat like an American cowboy. He is best seen in earnest conference with priest Father Pirrone, just bathed, wearing nothing but a gold medallion behind a dressing screen crawling with roses.

A visit to the family's country residence in Donnefugata brings heartthrob Tancredi to the ebony haired Angelica, played by Tunisian-born Claudia Cardinale. With a shawl emblazoned with swirling thorns to match her glossy swirling locks, tied in knots and balanced like a velvet drape, she is the quintessential temptress. Surprisingly contemporary with her fingerless ivory gloves, coral studs like rocks and smattering of gold rings, Cardinale's gypsy-tinged trashiness steals every banquet scene.

Beneath the omnipresent gaze of the Leopard-like serval, the face of the Lampedusa coat of arms, scenes unfold like painterly tableaux, one after the other. A frock-coated soldier lies gutted and strewn beneath a tree while vapour rises over towering palms. Panoramic vistas open out into each frame, from the gilded contours of the palace's interiors to the sweeping Sicilian mountains.

Styled after the figurative paintings of Francesco Hayez (1791-1882) or Renato Guttuso (1911-1987), pops of colour are precisely positioned: the scarlet of the soldiers' flags mirrors the crimson anemones bunched on the prince's numerous coffee tables; a Russian roulette of liquor shots are served in hues of red, white and green; aubergine and charcoal skirted ladies kneel before a marble shrine, elbows resting on chiffon armoires.

In 2hrs 45 minutes, the film is rarely silent. Announcements are made, trumpets toot, cicadas fill the gaps while Nino Roto's merry soundtrack rides through the action like a rogue carousel.

Like so many period pieces, the characters parade their ornate gowns from scene to scene in all their garish beauty. But it's the uniquely Italian tilt of the accessories and the detail which elevates this elegant exercise in 1800s etiquette into a paradigm pageant.

Bespoke tartan, looped rope embroidery, and lace pom-poms decorate necks, wrists and lapels. Ruffed-up top hats, glittering crucifix buttons and fading evening wear conjure up saints, sanctified ceremonies and open caskets.

In the most portentous scene of the film post-Garibaldi's invasion, a line of grey-faced ladies and gentlemen in waiting are seated for afternoon mass. As they ponder their limbo-like status in the smoky haze of burning incense, and the camera pans from one face to another, we see each is more sombre and more exotically adorned in silk and lace than the next.

The much-lauded ballroom sequence, a 45-minute set piece and the film's finale, is worth waiting for. The camera lingers by the top of the grand staircase as finely-dressed guests pop up in pairs. Hundreds of guests dance then feast. Picnicking in clusters, perched on the arms of chairs and nested beneath potted ferns or glass candelabras, women attend to their soldiers, their coats bedecked with medals and wormy fringes. These are the new high society's monkeys, ostentatiously aping the manners of their superiors and each other. The Leopard is dead.