Gliding from one gold-leaf room to another in the midst of a nightlong ball, the title character of Luchino Visconti's 1963 film The Leopard, Prince Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster), pauses to examine himself in a mirror. A staunch defender of the right of kings and the natural order of the classes, Fabrizio feels the sensuous pleasures of the world are the divine privilege of the noble. And no one apprehends the world of the senses — a straight razor sliding over his jowls, the abundant arms of a back-alley prostitute, the rosewater scent of an oncoming row of dancing youths at the ball — as pungently or immediately as the prince. The man he sees before him in the mirror — rheumy-eyed, short of breath — is not the lion he knows.
In the weaving patterns of dancers crossing the mirrored ballrooms — monuments to a decayed and mute narcissism — Fabrizio sees an approaching class, the newly emboldened bourgeois, rising to take the hands and titles of a shell-shocked and immobile gentry. He sees a woman (Claudia Cardinale) who is, strangely, much like himself: a coarse merchant's daughter who guffaws at a dirty joke. In a natural world, this woman would be his mate; instead, she is affianced to Fabrizio's nephew Tancredi, an ersatz revolutionary who will quietly acquiesce to the family order and assume his preplanned mediocrity in due time. Most of all, Fabrizio sees a world — a place of beauty, symmetry and health — vanishing before his eyes like a fold in the dancers' gossamer dresses.
Is it possible that The Leopard is the greatest movie ever made? The restored print showing at the Belcourt next week — a dream from which you never want to wake — makes a persuasive case. In the washed-out print that previously showed in American theaters, the grandiloquence and baroque, overlapping textures of Fabrizio's world always seemed to be half-gone in his memory. Here, they have a present-tense crispness and vibrancy that evokes a dying man's vision of the things he can't bear to surrender. No movie has been as perfumed with the twilight irony of last looks as The Leopard — a picture in which all of experience seems shot through with the sweetness of the dearly departed, the already mourned.
The performance by Lancaster is simply astonishing. The actor builds Fabrizio out of the rectitude of his spinal column and the broad, pinned-back thrust of the famous Lancaster shoulders. The genius, here, is that the athletic soar of that chesty attitude indicates not boyish high spirits or exuberant tough-guy mayhem, but a desperate cling to a fading image of the larger-than-life. Witness the delicacy with which Lancaster shakes the hand of a middle-class opponent who seeks to draw Fabrizio into the senate, or the magisterial frankness with which he shocks a sycophantic vicar with his bathtub nudity.
Lancaster, shorn of that famous warm, crisp, creepingly menacing voice, had mostly his eyes, his stride through large rooms and his terse physical bearing in unpleasant company as his acting tools. Out of these simple and not altogether precise elements, he draws the most indelible movie portrait of a man who watches: the drama, as Sydney Pollack puts it in an audio commentary that accompanies the Criterion Collection's DVD edition of the film, is in what we perceive in the character's gaze as the parade passes by and turns into air. We leave The Leopard as Fabrizio leaves the world: shattered — and electrified with gratitude.