Visconti later joined the Italian Communist Party, bizarrely. However, it did not stop him making some very good films and Il Gattopardo, the Leopard, is undoubtedly one of them.
It is based on the book of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the Prince of Lampedusa. But be warned the film is long: nearly 4 hours.
Il Gattopardo follows the family of its title character, the Sicilian nobleman Don Fabrizio Corbera Falconeri, Prince of Salina, through the events of the Italian Risorgimento when the new men, the bastard spawn of the French Revolution, set about creating a "liberal" (for which read anti-clerical and secularist) state of Italy by annexing and wresting by force the territories of the Pope and the Catholic monarchs in Sicily, Tuscany, Modena and all the northern duchies ruled over by Catholic Habsburgs and Bourbons for the most part.
The old world is threatened by this new, brash, bourgeois, money-grabbing, rapacious, capitalist, poor-grinding, revolutionary secularism. The Church is even more threatened and the Pope chased out of the Papal States and eventually out of Rome, altogether, for a time.
Under the hot sun, in the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies, the Catholic Spanish Bourbons still reign in an easy-going Catholic manner but vicious, modern, lying propaganda portrays the Kingdom as reactionary, backward, crumbling, tottering, oppressive, bumbling and in urgent need of revolution - as if any nation were ever to need a bloody revolution with death, blood, killing and assassination! As though these evil things were somehow to be considered good!
Gladstone, the British Prime Minsiter, famously blundered in his hostile policy and speeches against the King of the Two-Sicilies, accusing him of all manner of evil deeds that turned out to be largely spurious, anti-clerical propaganda cooked up by enemies of the Catholic Church. But silly old Gladstone, being Protestant, fell for it all - hook, line and sinker.
So, too, do numerous modern Americans kid themselves that the Sicilian mafia is the centre of a great criminal octopus that still rules in America. The reality is that American gangsters make the Sicilian mafia look like children in a kindergarten. And, in any case, the mafia grew out of the anti-clerical, anti-Catholic partisans of the French Revolution who, once the revolution was over, did not want to go back to ordinary living but preferred to live as bandits. They were no more "Catholic" than were the revolutionaries themselves!
But, not to worry! Thanks to ignorant nincompoops like Jimmy Swaggart and the other Protestant “Televangelists”, there is never any shortage of naïve Americans prepared to believe any amount of lies about the Catholic Church and the Catholic people.
As Gladstone wailed and moaned about the allegedly black deeds of the "evil" and "oppressive" Catholic regime of King Ferdinand II, which he called "negation of God erected to a system of government", his own prison officers were chaining Irishmen with heavy iron neck collars in dark dungeons, his own army had been blowing Indian Hindoos into tiny pieces from the end of field guns, and his own government was presiding over an England that had grinding, industrial poverty with horrors wholly unknown to the simple peasants of Sicily!
Gladstone's lying propaganda was far blacker and far more evil than anything King Ferdinand ever did!
But nevertheless, millions of pounds and Yankee dollars poured into the coffers of the revolutionaries, Garibaldi, Mazzini and Cavour, from blind, stupid Protestants and secularists who thought that anyone who was an enemy of the Pope must be good! And all the while these same dupes and fools were saying that Italy must decide its own fate without foreign intervention!
Hypocrisy knows no national boundaries!
Don Fabrizio's nephew, Don Tancredi, urges unsuccessfully that Don Fabrizio abandon his allegiance to the threatened Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and ally himself with the aggressive, all-conquering Savoy dynasty who have capitalised upon Garibaldi's red-shirted revolution. Says Tancredi: "Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they'll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change".
That is the theme of the book and film, but subtly and cleverly done. If things are to stay the same then they must change i.e. we must accommodate ourselves to the new brash, upstart generation of pushy social climbers and even marry their daughters so that we can preserve as much of the old world as we can.
There is obviously a considerable contradictory tension there and both Lampedusa and Visconti portray it with considerable skill.
The title is rendered in English as "The Leopard", but the Italian word gattopardo refers to the American ocelot or to the African serval. Il gattopardo may be a reference to a wildcat that was hunted to extinction in Italy in the mid-1800s - just as Don Fabrizio dryly contemplates the decline of his beloved Sicilian aristocracy.
One of the new men, a recently created knight, comes to visit Don Fabrizio as a kind of emissary of the new Savoyard government in Turin to try to persuade him to become a Senator in the new Upper House of the new Italian parliament but Don Fabrizio knows that would not fit his plan of preservation of this family and the old world and refuses, to the Cavaliere's consternation.
As the Cavaliere gets into his coach to depart, having failed, Don Fabrizio says, almost to himself, "We are the leopards and lions but after us will come the jackals and hyenas". It is, of course, true. That is exactly what happens to Italy. But the Cavaliere doesn't quite catch what is said and asks him to repeat it. "Oh, nothing, nothing" replies the Prince, acutely aware that this bespectacled commissar and bureaucratic schemer for the new regime, will not even know what he is talking about.
The plan goes ahead and Don Tancredi marries the daughter of the rich, capitalist but ignorant, uncultured and socially clumsy mayor, Don Calogero, who assures the Prince that he, Don Calegero, will soon also be noble because the papers will soon arrive from Turin! The Prince laughs and leaves the room to conceal his disgust, as does the family chaplain, Don Pirrone, himself an interesting character, an intelligent peasant who entered the Church and can see that the Church will suffer from the Revolution.
Yes, says, Don Fabrizio, but if our order (the aristocracy) were to be ditched to save the Church, you'd do it without a thought, wouldn't you? Hmm, says the priest. And you'd be right, the Prince adds, because the Church is immortal but the old regime is not. So, we nobles must compromise to save our families. You, the Church, have no such need. You will continue forever. Then you have a spiritual sin to confess, says the priest, misunderstanding the Prince's point. On the other hand, the simple instincts of the priest that no good will come of these compromises is, perhaps, also right. Such are the difficulties created by evil times. "Bruti tempi, bruti tempi", says the priest, meaning "evil times we live in".
Fortunately, Don Calogero's daughter is supremely beautiful and Tancredi falls for her instantly, leaving Don Fabrizio's daughter, Donna Concetta, with a broken heart for she has always secretly loved Tancredi and hoped to marry him. Tancredi's friend, a Count from the North, tries to woo her but it is no good. She is a one-man woman, gentle and devout but also proud and Sicilian.
There is a ballroom scene that last for fully 45 minutes but it is not for an instant boring and is, on the contrary, fascinating with many plots, sub-plots and counterpoint. Don Fabrizio is prevailed upon by Calogero's daughter to dance with her and the Prince dances the waltz so superbly that it is like a work of art and many of the guests stand and watch with delight: it is, however, the strange harmony of the old world and the new. Dimly, all sense it. The more intelligent admire it but with a feeling of uncertainty.
But the clergy and the peasants see more clearly. They see which way it will all end and detest the new men and their capitalist exploitation. They want the old world, the old Sicily, the poor but easy life in the sun-drenched valleys, all ruled under the harmony of Throne and Altar, Church and State with olive groves, vines, fig trees, peach trees, donkeys, carts and the dust and the wind in one's face.
We cannot but sympathise with them - espoecially as we know the end of the story and we know that they were, as ever, right. The new men did wreck everything. They did persecute the Church. They did despoil the peasants. They did make a farcical mess of government. They did lie, cheat and steal. And they prepared the way for Mussolini who was, in truth, one of them, though a rather better governor.
In one amusing scene, the true story of the so-called Plebescito, or Plebiscite of the people to vote on the new Italy, is told.
There are 515 registered voters. 512 vote. And - yes, you've guessed it - 512 vote "yes" and no-one votes "no".
Well, then. There you are! Everyone wants the new Risorgimento of Cavour and Victor Emmanuel! How simple!
Except that most of the people voted "no"! It was a fix by Don Calogero - and a thousand other such Don Calogeros all over Italy.
Don Fabrizio has counselled everyone to vote yes as part of his survival plan but they do not so. But what use is that? Calogero has fixed it whatever happens! Welcome to the "new" politics!
The novel was often criticised by modish, avant-garde, "with it", trendy literary critics for "combining realism with decadent aesthetics".
Utter piffle, of course.
Actually, it became so popular among common readers, that in 1963 Il Gattopardo was made into the film.
It is all in Italian but with sub-titles. This is better and more authentic. Interestingly, Burt Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio - and does it superbly well. Alain Delon plays Tancredi and Claudia Cardinale plays Don Calogero's daughter.
The film ends after the Ball. Don Fabrizio decides to walk home. As he walks the streets, a tinkling bell is heard and a priest appears bearing the Blessed Sacrament for the sick with a server before him ringing the bell.
The Prince kneels in the dusty street before the King of Kings.
Italy will change its governments and the top people will re-arrange the chairs but Sicily will still be Sicily and all, from highest to lowest, from grandest to meanest, will still kneel as the Blessed Sacrament passes by, whatever crazy government is in power.
See the film. You will not regret it.