Courtney Barnes and I have found ourselves chatting to journalist Steven Kurutz about the enduring influence of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film The Leopard. I told Steven that I was first introduced to the film at a suitably glamorous Manolo Blahnik exhibition at the Design Museum in London in 2003, where scenes from The Leopard played on a video loop (a trailer can be seen here, and Kurutz’s piece in the New York Times can be read here).
You can easily see why Blahnik would admire The Leopard: almost every scene contains a wealth of visual detail about aristocratic life in Sicily in the 1860s, including sumptuous costumes, lavish (and tellingly fading) interiors and dramatic landscapes.
But with Visconti beauty is never an end in itself. The settings and furnishings speak eloquently about a certain way of life at a certain historical moment, and about how that way of life is changing. In one particularly poignant scene, for instance, Don Tancredi (played by Alain Delon) rushes through his uncle’s country house to say his goodbyes before going off to join Garibaldi’s revolution. The huge dog scampering alongside him, the billowing curtains and Tancredi’s own irresistable, dance-like progress all seem to suggest that the winds of change are blowing through this old, static society.
Even the stark Sicilian landscape, apparently so timeless, hints at the social and political changes that are taking place: traditionally these fields and hills had belonged to the Prince of Salina, the film’s protagonist (played by Burt Lancaster), but now they are changing hands as a politically astute nouveau riche class comes to the fore.
The Prince is history, both in the sense that he is yesterday’s man and in the sense that we see the changes happening through his eyes. Socially prominent and yet powerless, charismatically virile (he is ‘the leopard’ of the title) but also philosophically resigned, he is the pivot around which the whole epic spectacle turns.
And yet the film never feels weighed down by its underlying ideas. Visconti’s love of visual richness and attention to detail ensure that the story is told directly through the senses and the emotions rather than through the mind.
In this way Visconti is a fantastic inspiration for anyone involved in the heritage business: if we can make the experience of visiting historic houses and gardens feel like watching The Leopard then our job is done. Which is rather a tall order, of course.