What better way to begin a new year than watching The Leopard, Luchino Visconti’s ever-enthralling saga about a proud aristocratic family trying not to crumble when Garibaldi’s army lands on its doorstep, marching toward a unified Italy and the 20th century? The epic is at once a magnificent escape into the past and a warning about the dangers of clinging to it. In New York, Film Forum begins a two-week run of the latest restoration, which premiered this year at Cannes, on New Year’s Eve. (Next best if you’re not in New York: The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray.)
As the Prince of Salina, who thought he could lord over his family and kingdom forever, Burt Lancaster is so majestic, fierce and touching that he dispels the memory of all those hokey Lancaster impersonations. But even now the difference between the movie-star persona and the Prince can make your head spin. Take a look at the 1963 trailer for the American release. It’s a hoot, which starts with a message from Lancaster himself, the star posturing as artiste, who also promises that The Leopard comes from the company that brought you Cleopatra. Watch the trailer turn cartwheels trying to convince the audience that even though this is a foreign film, it’s really OK, it’s just like Gone With the Wind. (And it was, sort of; that American Leopard was dubbed.)
Lancaster must have known exactly what he was doing when he pulled off that brilliant disappearing act, though, because he did it again 17 years later as the aging gangster infatuated with the young Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City.
If you need to cleanse your palate after that first trailer, here’s one released by the BFI for its run last year, which at least hints at how sumptuous and beautiful The Leopard truly is, how young and beautiful Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale were as the lovers Tancredi and Angelica. With 19th-century political upheaval, enthralling battles and irresistibly opulent dances, The Leopard may be about history, but it feels eternally new.