Virtually every Super Technirama frame of Luchino Visconti's 1963 masterpiece The Leopard could be described as "painterly" in its ornate details and exquisitely balanced color compositions, but one of the film's most memorable shots seems almost literally frozen in time. As members of a Sicilian aristocratic family gather for Mass in 1860, the camera tracks along their motionless faces as if they were figures in a wax museum, prematurely ossified by the forces of history. With the "Risorgimento"—a revolutionary movement that took 55 years to reunify a fractured Italy into a democratic state—taking its first shots across the bow, these monarchists represent a breed in decline, depleted of wealth and political influence. Born a count, the son of a cultured and powerful family, Visconti was uniquely attuned to the family's fall from grace, which he depicts as a resounding sigh, by aligning himself with a hero who's sadly and nobly resigned to his own downfall.
"I belong to an unfortunate generation," muses the overdubbed (but still excellent) Burt Lancaster, who stars as an aging prince presiding over the extinction of his royal clan. While he and his extended family are holed up in their insular hilltop estate, the country is being reshaped outside its walls, with Giuseppe Garibaldi and his spirited volunteers overwhelming the stiff Bourbon army on the streets of Palermo. Though the old-fashioned Lancaster understands the necessity of change, he holds his ground; meanwhile, his opportunistic nephew Alain Delon shrewdly jumps ship and takes up arms with the revolutionaries. With his uncle's blessing, the charming Delon even spurns Lancaster's daughter for the beautiful Claudia Cardinale, a young woman whose family has the money to complement his ambitions.
Those unschooled in 19th-century Italian history may be adrift in the particulars—though the three-disc set includes a helpful primer by University Of Pennsylvania professor Millicent Marcus—but the bittersweet spirit permeating The Leopard tells the real story. Culminating in a sumptuous ballroom sequence that ends metaphorically with Lancaster's last waltz, the film aches with regret over a crumbling empire, but its feelings are complicated by the wise prince, who recognizes his place on the wrong side of history. As Lancaster strolls home alone on the morning after the party, his tragic irrelevance comes through in a quietly devastating final shot.
The DVD package includes the shorter, 161-minute American release, with Lancaster's actual voice, as well as an hourlong reminiscence with Cardinale, screenwriter Suso Cecchi d'Amico, and ace cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, among others. But the most fascinating material comes from a 20-minute interview with producer Goffredo Lombardo, who willfully and happily bankrupted his company in order to support Visconti's vision in all its obscure excesses. Not only did Visconti shoot on location in restored Sicilian palaces, but he also insisted that fresh flowers be shipped in from San Remo, because the local varieties weren't to his liking. Lombardo eventually paid back his creditors, ensuring that his investment would be far more enduring than his debt.