Tino Mendes Sargo
The disappointment of seeing The Leopard is in direct proportion to the promises of the project…. [The] film had everything to make it a smashing success, even the excellent photography of [Giuseppe] Rotunno….
[Unlike] most films made in this part of the world, [The Leopard] is not a producer's film. It is a director's film…. And, what's more, it is the film of a man with great experience in working from literary sources; also, this man is an aristocrat himself, coming from a most distinguished Italian family. (p. 35)
Visconti is a director whose films have largely derived from literary works; but he approached these works as a pretext, as it were, to make films that stand on their own feet and not to make films as mere illustrations or adaptations of the books. In viewing The Leopard one is astonished by the faithfulness with which the director follows Lampedusa's novel…. And yet, I submit, the success of the book is the film's failure. (p. 36)
The Prince has the centrality of a character whom everything is reflected upon, in the book and in the film. However, in the book there is a character, or rather, a supporting cast, as it were, that does not "appear" in the film: The historical background…. [The sequences in Palermo] are of an appalling mediocrity in their conception and directorial handling. (pp. 36-7)
The other important character is Don Calogero Sedara, the bourgeois on his way up the social ladder, upon whom Visconti, quite inexplicably, bestows farcical traits in a most arbitrary fashion. Maybe being an aristocrat and a Communist, the director does not see what is in the middle even if Don Calogero is a revolutionary force….
Lampedusa gives us an historicist interpretation of history. Visconti, faithful to the book as he is, does not. The theme of the book somehow escapes the film: the flux of history, the fall of aristocracy, the rise of a new and vital class and the betrayal of a revolution. Visconti tries, but never quite succeeds…. Thus, on the one hand we have literal faithfulness which does not mean thematic faithfulness; on the other we have added scenes, subtle enough and timid enough not to give us the rendering of these themes.
Visconti oscillates between an historicist interpretation of history and a romantic view of the characters that make and are made by the same history. The theme of the flux of history is washed out by the theme of an aging man's fore-knowledge of death. I have nothing against the intersection of biography and history. In fact, I am all for it, provided that biography and history do not annihilate each other, as is the case in The Leopard. Visconti's timidity is shown in the conventionality with which he approaches these themes. He is not bold enough to "recreate" the book in such a way that the film could be a great and autonomous work of art….
The conventionality of this film lies precisely in the reduction of everything to a character. This is not only a question of structure, but also a question of scale, dictated by the supposed need of motion pictures to create characters with whom we can identify. We had the boy-next-door, now we shall have the Prince-next door! (p. 37)
This film, in all its merits (because it has merits: the ball at Ponteleone, the Plebiscite, the hunting scenes, etc.), was an effort and a great one that did not pay off, commercially or artistically….
Thus, Luchino Visconti's talent for recreating works of literature on the screen, his immensely refined taste and his lucidity seem, in The Leopard, neutralized by romantic nostalgia and subserviency to motion picture myths. I said earlier that this was a director's film. But maybe inside every director there is a producer lurking. Given the fact that this was Visconti's most expensive film, I dread to think that the producer inside Visconti has taken over. The birth of a producer is usually the death of a director. (p. 38)
Tino Mendes Sargo, "Film Reviews: 'The Leopard'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1963 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter, 1963–64, pp. 35-8.