by Kaleem Hasan
It is not easy to nominate a film to equal let alone surpass the Leopard in the much attempted though rarely successfully realized art of translating literary writing to cinema. To remain true to two art forms at one and the same time is always a tall order and yet Visconti accomplishes this miracle in a work which is easily the director’s greatest and also one that was in some measure autobiographical for him. One of course thinks of Kurosawa’s supreme Shakespeare versions in Throne of Blood and Ran but these films are complex transpositions doing double duty in equal measure to Kurosawa’s vision as well as Shakespeare’s and therefore harder to pin down as ‘adaptations’ in the usual sense. Visconti seems a bit more modest in comparison aiming only to arrive at the best cinematic equivalent for Lampedusa’s sublime work and yet in doing so he opens up a rather intimate chamber drama into a sprawling large scale epic that captures the tones and notes of the novel to sheer perfection. The Leopard ought to stand as the very model of what a cinematic reworking of lierature ought to look like.
One has to go against entire schools of at least Anglo-American film criticism to suggest that for the most part very mediocre or at best servicable adaptations have rather triumphantly been celebrated as great successes. One cannot quarrel with David Lean’s Dickens adaptations as pure films but one ought to be able to find them enormously wanting as interpretations of those novels. These examples could be multiplied. The point of doing literature in film cannot just be to present a well-shot ‘intelligent’ entertainer. Much as it cannot be the purpose of an Ibsen stage production to have impressive sets and characters finely attired in period costume or otherwise! A powerful performance of the Eroica symphony would presumably not simply be ‘about’ the expert musicians but would have to include a notion of ‘interpretation’ which is what we associate with the Karajans of the field. Rather mysteriously and unfortunately though when it comes to cinema these critical antennae appear madly malformed. The overwhelming majority of cinematic adaptation and certainly within the Anglo-American tradition features literary work represented as film yarns. If one is very lucky one gets top notch cinematography. These films can certainly be enjoyed but serious interpretations they are not. There is a responsibility raised with the work of ‘adaptation’ — the director must be able to serve two masters rather well. Or else one is left with an impostor work that lives off the prestige of the original without enriching the inheritance in any way.
The Leopard too is concerned with questions of legacy. A modernity which threatens not just Don Fabrizio but an entire order of being he associates himself with. An entire waning of a world and not just the changing of the guard on a historical epoch. One could write endlessly on Visconti’s extraordinary formal choices in his film and the parade of interesting scenes and segments to go along with these but there is also here the director’s brilliant exploration of space as a metaphor for the concerns of the novel. The film’s outdoors usually seem chaotic and anarchic. There are the grand revolutionary moments in the early part of the narrative but also the ill-portending body in the garden and then later as the film progresses the ‘outdoors’ are where things remain unsettled or in tumult. From border checkpoints to those great symptoms of political modernity in elections the world on the outside always seems a bit less stable. As opposed to this the interior world of Don Fabrizio’s household and retinue and so forth is always one circumscribed by rules and order. The rooms of his grand residences or his hallways or his balconies usually feature characters arranged almost in geometric fashion. Affixed to their places. The only ‘freedom’ in the first half of the film is provided by Tancredo who is always a bit boisterously animated in these interior spaces. Not surprisingly he is the first member of his illustrious family who has made the move to modernity. In the second half of the narrative in what is one of the film’s supreme moments the lovers explore the uninhabited ‘ruined’ spaces of Donnafugata in a near-choreographed ludic display that is at once erotic and charged with political subversion. Finally the waltz sequence where a sort of mock-revolution is staged. Initially the couples dance in assigned areas in the ballroom but by the end they form a chain and wander all through their host’s residence. A kind of anarchy is unlosed in the midst of order as the dancers even charge through the dining area with the representatives of the old order relegated to being observers. No one sees this more clearly than Don Fabrizio and fittingly at the end of the film he goes out and wanders off into a dark ‘antique’ alley. His legacy and that of his world now has no legatees.
As the film opens Nino Rota’s grandly romantic score wafts over the palace gates and eventually one notices a grand curtain guarding the entrance to a very luxuriant balcony being blown by the wind and no longer being able to neatly segregate the inside from the outside. The rest of the film is about the gradual encroachment on the former by the latter. The wind blows in rumor of course and finally change.
Note: Kaleem Hasan is the founder and host of the blogsite “Satyamshot,” where he covers the full scope of Indian culture and politics. He saw The Leopard two weeks ago during it’s run at the Film Forum.