Visconti saves the last dance for us
Aside from his very considerable achievements as a film-maker, Martin Scorsese has been a remarkably industrious advocate for film preservation, and has personally been involved in the restoration of numerous neglected or mistreated classics, from David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia to Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes.
Earlier this year at the Cannes Festival, he unveiled a film that's particularly close to his heart -- Luchino Visconti's 1963 masterpiece, Il Gattopardo, or The Leopard.
"I live with this movie every day of my life," Scorsese has said, and he and his team lavished 12,000 hours of loving care into transferring the original 35mm print to digital format and removing 47 years of dirt and scratches. The restored version can be seen at Dublin's IFI daily for the coming week.
It's a fitting end for a film that's generally considered one of the masterpieces of post-war cinema but that was shabbily treated on its initial release. Despite winning the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 1963, The Leopard fell foul of its principal backers, 20th Century Fox, when it was released in the United States.
Unhappy with initial audience reactions to what is a relatively complex and subtle three-hour literary story, Fox cut a good 20 minutes off its length, butchered the famous ballroom scene and reprocessed the film in a colour system that greatly diminished its grandeur. Visconti was outraged, because Il Gattopardo had been a project very close to his heart, and over time his true vision would be richly vindicated.
Visconti is often referred to as the aristocrat of Italian cinema, but he was also an aristocrat in the actual sense.
Born in Milan on November 2, 1906, he was raised in an atmosphere of refinement and wealth. His father, Guiseppe Visconti di Modrone, was the Duke of Grazzano and one of the most well-connected men in Lombardy.
Visconti's interest in the arts was evident from an early stage, and as a boy and young man he was introduced to the likes of Toscanini, Puccini and the writer Gabriele d'Annunzio. Apart from his film work, Visconti would later direct plays and operas with great distinction.
Despite his fusty origins, Visconti grew up to become a radical. He was openly homosexual, or as openly as you could be in 1930s and '40s Italy, and during the Second World War he joined the Italian Communist Party.
He had begun his film career in the late 1930s, gaining priceless experience by working as an assistant on a couple of Jean Renoir's films. And in the 1940s he became a vital part of the hugely influential Italian neorealist movement.
As the war turned and Mussolini's grip on power began to slacken, a group of young directors including Visconti, Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica began a movement that rejected the stiff, Hollywood-imitating Italian cinema of the 1930s in favour of gritty, almost documentary-style films set among the dispossessed and the working class and often using unprofessional actors.
Visconti arguably initiated the movement with Obsessione (1943), a stylish and gritty reworking of the James M Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. And while it was ostensibly a story of illicit love and murder, Visconti's socialist beliefs were very evident.
He addressed the tenuous existence of Sicilian fishermen in La Terra Trema in 1948, but by the mid-1950s his cinema had evolved somewhat beyond the restrictions of neorealism. There were romantic elements in his lush historical drama Senso (1954), and thereafter he began to make more overtly personal films.
It's not hard to see what drew him to The Leopard. Although first published in 1958, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's sweeping novel harked back to an Italy that was long gone. Set at the time of the Risorgimento, it followed the fortunes of an arrogant but basically decent Sicilian aristocrat, Don Fabrizio Salina, who has enough sense to realise that the days of his kind are numbered.
The book was controversial: in describing the painful birth of modern Italy, it criticised the church, corrupt local politicians, aristrocrats and grasping peasants alike. Visconti had found his great subject.
The problem, though, would be finding the money to realise his grand vision, because The Leopard is set in opulent 19th Century mansions and would require lavish sets and costumes and a very sizable budget. He would get it, but at a price.
Visconti originally wanted the great Russian actor Nikolai Cherkasov to play the crucial role of Don Fabrizio. But Cherkasov was in very poor health, and once Fox got involved the casting of that role took a very different direction.
Fox agreed to give the director $3m to shoot his film, but their price was that he agree to cast an American actor in the title role, which would give the studio a better chance of recouping on their investment.
The actor imposed upon him was Burt Lancaster, and at first Visconti was not impressed.
As Lancaster explained in an interview with the esteemed US film critic Roger Ebert, "They wanted a Russian, but he was too old. They wanted Olivier, but he was too busy. When I was suggested, Visconti said 'Oh no, a cowboy!'"
But after this bumpy start, Visconti developed a good working relationship and the two remained friends for the rest of their lives.
Although he'd started out his career playing hoodlums and cowboys, Lancaster had broadened his range considerably during the 1950s in films like Elmer Gantry and Sweet Smell of Success. He was absolutely perfect as the powerful and charismatic Don Fabrizio, the Leopard of the title, bringing a kind of menacing physical grace to his portrayal. Simultaneous English and Italian versions were produced, with Lancaster dubbed for the Italian one.
With its beautiful, autumnal compositions and stately, measured pace, Visconti's finished film perfectly evoked the subdued melancholy of the original novel. It was a masterpiece, but not everyone thought so.
One of the scenes the 20th Century Fox hacks began merrily cutting for the American version was the ballroom scene, a splendid, subtle, breathtaking 45-minute piece of filmmaking in which Lancaster's character sees his way of life and personal vitality begin to decline and quickly comes to terms with it, even while dancing with his beautiful young co-star, Claudia Cardinale. Now carefully restored, it's a special moment in a special film that, despite several impressive attempts, including Death in Venice, Visconti would never surpass.
The Leopard will screen at 3.30pm and 7.30pm today and for the rest of the week at the IFI, Temple Bar. www.ifi.ie