I found mine when the theater went dark and a 55-year-old movie based on a 60-year-old novel detailing century-and-a-half-old events lit the screen.
It makes sense, in an aching sort of way, that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel, The Leopard, was published after his death, having been rejected by the two publishers to which he had submitted it while he lived. It is about (but not only about) the passing of an era embodied in one Sicilian, Don Fabrizio Corbera, a fictional prince of Salina. Into his timeless world came crashing the Risorgimento — the arrival of Garibaldi and his forces of unification at Marsala on Sicily started the clock. Everything, and nothing, was about to change.
The book spans the period from 1860 to 1910, closing with a chapter about relics — the false ones that fill a pallazzo’s chapel, a long-dead beloved dog whose taxidermied remains are dying too, the young and immortal who never dream they will one day be old — memories.
This haunting story of loss is itself haunted by the circumstances of the writer, Lampedusa.
It’s been a while since a book has shaken me, and I’d wondered if that too was another thing to say goodbye to, in a long series that began — when? You cross a bridge into another age, and then it burns behind you. I feel the author’s presence in the room like faint perfume with no visible source. I am about to be knocked breathless by a hard-edged physicality brought to the nebulous concept of a character’s “arc of life.”
When coming to the end, with utter surprise, the gasp I hear comes from me. The ending chapter mysteriously manages to detail Don Fabrizio’s decline from simultaneous vantages: the omniscient narrator’s and the character’s, doubly self-aware thoughts reflected back as from a convex mirror. It is impossible to diagram how Lampedusa might have constructed this uncanny device made of words that go both ways at once. Then there is the glimpse of the artist himself, spotted on the dim face of the mirror he himself has painted. Not just an in-joke, like Hitchcock darting through a scene in each of his movies for the benefit of those who collect such things, but a personal cry.
Lampedusa had written so stirringly of one essential subject: potency giving way to impotence, youth bending inexorably under the weight of years, light going dim, revolutions coming and going. He was aware (as Don Fabrizio is of his impending disappearance from the Sicilian soil whose minerals made his blood) of his own future as a restless ghost. It is almost painful, given the heartbreaking effort he made to bring his heartbreaking work to light, to remember Lampedusa went to his grave unknowing that this work would not only quickly be recognized as a major literary accomplishment but would also give rise to another towering work.
Often I won’t watch films of books I’ve loved; they always ruin the beautiful film I already directed in my head. But with Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, it was different. I saw the film before reading the book, for one thing. (For another, it could be surpassed by nothing.) I picked up the novel only after being dumbfounded by the majesty of Visconti’s vision, the hard yellows of the unending Sicilian landscape, the symbols made real with coatings of dust, the architectural confections that had cost the invisible sweat and tears of many cooks, destroyed with one stab of a noble’s fork. And, the final color wash to an already ravishing painting — Nino Rota’s swelling, heart-rending score. I had to read the book that could have begotten such perfection. That’s when I learned there were two separate masterpieces each called The Leopard. They share everything, and nothing.
The filmmaker is astoundingly faithful to both Lampedusa’s plot and meanings. Visconti telescopes some action and adds scenes of his own, notably a battle in the streets to show the ambiguous hero Tancredi in action as a Garibaldino. I say ambiguous because, as perfectly embodied in actor Alain Delon, he is a suave opportunist, shallow, self-regarding, and magnetic. At the screening I went to, the audience burst out in knowing laughter at the sight of him leaping with an emphatically self-conscious spring into the carriage en route to future martial adventures; as played, it was a meticulously calculated dance step that succinctly captured all of Tancredi’s conflicting qualities. Among the most salient is his pure presence. In a film and book that both foreground the physical, he is preeminently a human animal.
In truth, that is what Tancredi and his voluptuous prize Angelica (played with lubricious abandon by Claudia Cardinale) are meant to represent: the immortality of youth’s mortality. As Don Fabrizio remarks, longingly, prayerfully, watching them dance: “Nothing can equal our young couple.” Nothing can equal what we all must lose.
Barely glanced on in the film, but a central issue in the book, is what only the omniscient narrator can know: Angelica and Tancredi’s marriage will negate the overripe promise of their courtship. All they have is desire. It is monumental, and will be unfulfilled. It will replicate Fabrizio’s own. As he explains to a cringing Father Pirrone, he has conceived seven offspring with his wife yet has “never seen her navel”; she will permit no expression of lust because the Church watches every touch. She crosses herself before every intimacy. Her final release is accompanied by a request for heaven’s blessing — “Gesumaria!” she cries. He visits a prostitute because he is still a “vigorous man.” He takes inventory of marriage: “One year of flames and thirty years of ashes.”
Visconti’s cinematic realization of the novel is truer to the soul of the book than if he had transcribed it paragraph by paragraph. Most of all he is faithful to Lampedusa’s intention to render both the tragedy and the central significance of life as resolutely ephemeral, shallowly physical. That is its depth. All that snowy meringue of physical beauty, ritual, costume: departure is foreordained in arrival.
Visconti strategically stretches a couple of moments, filling them (but so delicately!) with additional helpings of the author’s intentions. Notably, he serves a cunning dish of visual metaphor when the family has arrived at their mountain retreat, Donnafugata, after a laborious trip into the heights of Sicily’s vastness. They go directly to church for the ritual village homecoming, and as they sit in the pews the camera pans along their dust-covered, unmoving visages: they have become the very statuary displayed in the film’s opening. The semaphore message that is the credit sequence — basically a movie’s CliffsNotes — was lavished on the chipped faces of ancient sculpture. It is obvious these relics surrounding the villa are precious and beautiful. It is equally obvious they have been decayed by Sicily itself, its unforgiving air and unforgiving years. When we are shown their living doppelgängers later in the movie we then see the director’s point: those to whom it is happening never register the process of desiccation. Change may be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it is not painful. Ask anyone who has reached the latter part of life without fulfilling the budded promise of their beginning. Ask someone who is a writer.
The famous depiction of the ball — in the novel only a part of chapter six, dated November 1862, at Palazzo Ponteleone — becomes Visconti’s pièce de résistance, a 45-minute scene in which large ideas unfold at the pace of an all-night social ritual that is, as Don Fabrizio remarks, essentially no different from a convocation of monkeys. The concepts explored by means of a lavish ball include nothing less than “the passing of an age” and “the loss of vitality” and “the momentary but overwhelming power that is youth.” It is a painting come to life, luscious and filled with pathos. It brings to mind Ingres’s portrait of the Princesse de Broglie, or rather, Ingres’s portrait of some Copenhagen-blue silk. Visconti’s art at every turn reminds us of other art — which is both meant to place his film in the canon and to remark on the fact that the canon is nothing more than a revolving door through which the new continually makes its grand entrance. Only momentarily does Visconti take aim at easy targets like overconsumption and the hypocrisies of the ruling class: he is well aware that to fire would be to commit an error of equal superficiality. The ball becomes the means of witnessing the full range of life’s hard paradox, the coexistence of its beauty and ugliness, its depths and its shallows. It is the axle of the film, the still center around which everything turns. It is finally where Don Fabrizio sees not only his line passing before him in a grand pageant of crinoline and white gloves; it is where he realizes his own life is almost past.
In a single moment of chilling realization, the prince sees truth in a mirror. The tear that falls from his eye is everything. A punch in the gut. A novel in one look. A premonition, a warning, a revelation. Any notion that Burt Lancaster was not up to the role of “The Leopard” (as it is said Visconti feared) is dispelled here.
But the thing in the whole movie that got me most is the curtains fluttering in windows. They wave over the vast terraces like flags, captive but longing to go. They billow into rooms, inviting us in from the midday sun (itself a central character in book and film both, as is the Sicilian landscape). They beckon us to enter a private world. After we are there, the curtain remains in the frame, as if to remind us we have been granted an audience with time. They wanly wave goodbye to the minutes we are given.
The first line of chapter seven, the book’s penultimate, were actually written by me. I mean, in my head, not in the earthy elegance of Lampedusa’s prose, but in a 3:00 a.m. rendezvous with despair. Don Fabrizio “had been feeling as if the vital fluid, the faculty of existing, life itself in fact and perhaps even the will to go on living, were ebbing out of him slowly but steadily…” He felt a “sense of continual loss.” On my bedside table is a Post-it note, meant to be a reminder to write something, but now effectively litter: I feel as if I am living lightly on the surface of life. It’s been sitting there for two years, as if I were going to reanimate one day and write something profound and personally moving on the subject of what it feels like to have come to the passing of one’s own age, waking up one night to look in the mirror of 3:00 a.m. and realizing the time was gone when possibility was infinite and thoughts rushed like a mountain stream and I knew they were good thoughts and felt wonder turning in them like the slow power of a millwheel. The sadness of no longer hurrying into life but rather being caught up paralytically in it, as if I’d stepped into a half mile of rope scrawled on the floor and tripped on my own years, is overwhelming now. The two years since I wrote that forlorn whimper have been lost scrolling through Facebook.
Lampedusa wrote his deep-throated lament when he was in his late 50s. The sense of loss that precipitated a work of this force could not have been imagined by anyone who had not experienced it, no matter how talented a fabulist. Lampedusa was Don Fabrizio, and now I was Lampedusa, only without anything like a Leopard flung off as a farewell to the age that had passed while I was waiting for something to happen.
The heart of book and movie both is an apparently inscrutable line that recurs twice. At first I decided it was meaningless nonsense, a bit of gold-leafed, self-canceling logic, all sound and fury. “For things to remain the same, everything must change.” Tancredi says it first to explain why he will go off with the revolutionaries — hastening the demise of the same feudal way of life that permits him the luxury of dashing red shirt and debonair wound. It puzzles the thoughtful but besotted Don Fabrizio, who has a tendency to give his handsome nephew any latitude. Then later Fabrizio repeats the line, as if it fully explains things; by virtue of having been voiced by such an enviable specimen as Tancredi, to the prince it has taken on elemental truth. That is what I thought its purpose was in this fiction — an illustration of character, no more and no less.
An epiphany woke me the next night. Like a light, it briefly flamed in the room. The line was everything. It was the meat inside the book’s nutshell. It revealed itself as a totality.
This tide of continual change, that takes age after age, art after art, out to sea and always returns for more, must occur. No tide, no life.
I wrote this on another Post-it note. Afterward I fell back into troubled sleep. The next morning, I saw it by the bedside. A message from a moment just passed, one in which there was time and will yet to act. I picked it up and brought it to my desk.
The author of The Perfect Vehicle and The Place You Love Is Gone, Melissa Holbrook Pierson has spent cumulative years in darkened movie theaters. She contributed to and co-edited O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors.