Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale in The Leopard.
20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

Despite the protestations of the “the movie can never be as great as the book” crowd, some films perfectly capture the tone and texture of their source material, and The Leopard is one of them. Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 end-of-an-era reverie, Luchino Visconti’s film, as mournful as a moonlit dream, stars Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio Corbera, a Sicilian prince caught in the shifting winds of Italian unification. His own nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), is an insurgent, having signed on with revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, though his allegiance will fluctuate as the national landscape changes. And both prince and nephew will find themselves enchanted by the dazzling Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of a rich schemer, who seems perfectly suited to thrive in the new Italy. MGM, one of the studios behind the picture, had insisted on putting Lancaster, at the time a highly bankable star, in the lead. The decision initially made Visconti unhappy, though the men struck an accord and wound up being lifelong friends. And Lancaster’s performance is the heart of this haunted palace of a movie: his Don Fabrizio is a ghost in the making, a living shadow of a gilded time, clinging as we all do to the shape and movement of the human form.

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