Critic-at-Large Moe and I are spending this May Day (and the rest of this week's lunch hours) in the company of that most aristocratic of communists, the Italian director Luchino Visconti—revisiting one of my favorite movies, Visconti's dazzling 1963 adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's Il Gattopardo. Roger Ebert wrote that it "was directed by the only man who could have directed it"—Visconti's noble ancestry and Marxist outlook subtly intersect all over the film, perhaps uniquely sympathetic to both the patrician way of life and its necessary decay.
Because of the film's historical backdrop—the Risorgimento and the campaign for Italian unification—it's not surprising that the music in the film pays extensive homage to Giuseppe Verdi. Nino Rota's score is skillfully Verdiesque, especially a dotted-rhythm theme that Giuseppe would have been pleased to come up with. Verdi's own music turns up as well, in two of the movie's best set-pieces. As the Prince of Salina and his family arrive at their summer palace in the village of Donnafugata, the municipal band greets them (in a detail lifted straight from the novel) with a wheezy rendition of "Noi siamo zingarelle," the gypsy chorus from La Traviata. It's a selection rife with connections: a bit of counterpoint with the town's name ("disappearing woman"), symbolizing both the family's literal journey and their figurative gypsy-like drift towards irrelevance—Visconti places the band in front of prominent "Viva Garibaldi" graffiti—the wealthy slumming of Violetta's party made real. Verdi also turns up in the final 45-minute ball scene, in the famous form of a then-unpublished salon waltz to which the Prince dances with Angelica, his nephew's non-noble wife, a reluctant legitimization of the ascendancy of capitalist wealth over hereditary privilege.
I can't think of an American movie that uses an individual composer's music and style to so completely conjure a specific time and place. A lot of that is due to the unique timing of Verdi's career, coming along just at the time when his creation would have the largest possible extra-musical resonance. (Visconti expertly uses this aspect of Verdi in his earlier film Senso.) Visconti's achievement is not only to effectively illustrate the film's setting, but also to reflect back on the Verdian style, to show how the time and place gave the music an added power. Almost certainly Lampedusa and Visconti intend the Prince to be the type of character—proud, impulsive, his intellect and his social responsibilities not always in sync—familiar in post-1860 Verdi: Philip, say, or Boccanegra. The Verdi and Verdi-like music on the soundtrack asserts a common influence of historical setting on composer, novel, and film; in a way, it's prompting us to imagine what Verdi himself would have done with the story, one that doubtless would have appealed to him. Visconti—a terrific opera director as well—even deploys the music operatically, in contrast with the way film music usually functions in Hollywood. Visconti almost never uses the music to smooth over transitions or to unobtrusively shape the mood; he brings it in with a flourish, a coup de théâtre to punctuate a scene, usually towards the end. Visconti's epic staging of the siege of Palermo plays out without music until the final moments: only when the Prince's nephew, Tancredi (note the name) is injured by an artillery shell does Visconti punch in the dramatic cue. In the ball scene, the near-continuous dance numbers provide the sort of ironic set decoration of a Traviata or Rigoletto.
Towards the beginning of The Leopard, there's a musical moment that's pure genius. Tancredi is riding off to fight with the Garibaldini, and Visconti sweeps him out of the Salina palace with broad camera arcs and Rota's swelling strains. But as the film cuts to the next scene, the music cuts off, abruptly, mid-phrase. It's a jarring transition that reminds us that Tancredi's enthusiasm is more cynical than idealistic—his ultimate goal is to gain political credibility in order to make his way in the post-unification society he shrewdly foresees. The romantic overtones of his departure are part and parcel with his own wily charisma; the music leaves the narrative along with him. But it's even more remarkable how the cut reinforces the realist undercurrent of the film. It's a self-conscious artifice, an emphasis of the cinematic surface, a reminder of the fact that we are, after all, watching a movie. But by placing Tancredi's music within the cinematic reality rather than layering it over, Visconti paradoxically gives the juxtaposition of the scenes a documentary quality. It's a combination of opulent fantasy and clear-eyed analysis that vaguely but appropriately echoes Marx himself.