The Leopard by Tomasi di Lampedusa – a true 20th C masterpiece both of literature and cinema

51b82dceOjL._SY300_This summer I actually got some good reading done. I had been plagued with seeing The Leopard by Lampedusa in various bookstores in Italy, but did not really know what it was about aside from the reunification of Italy in the late 19th C. I read Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb and in the 4th chapter of that book, he talked about the book and I was hooked. I scoured about 4 bookstores in Sicily before finally finding a translation into French and I dove it head first. What an incredible read! I was blown away by the text itself – the descriptions, the limpidity of the language, the subtlety of the conversations, the disillusion of the central character Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salinas, and of course the gorgeous Angelica. The book takes place during Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily (he landed in Marsala in April of 1860 with 1086 men (“the Thousand”) and defeated the royalist army which had upwards of 20k troops on the island) but rather at various locations where the Prince was staying (and later dying) near Palermo at at Donnafugata. The descriptions of the meals are enough to make you quit a diet and drive straight to the closest Italian restaurant. It is sumptuous in every way. The famous ball scene in Chapter 6 reminded me of the Bal Masqué in Le Temps Retrouvé. Truly an incredible read. It shows a depth of understanding of history, politics, and human nature that is melancholic but still with a glimmer of hope. The characters of Don Fabrizio, his chaplain Pere Pirrone were based directly on Lampedusa’s own great grandfather and his priest. The other characters were similarly anchored in a real person that lived through that period. We see the year of 1860 pass month by month and then skip a couple of year forward. The telescoping in time also works backwards when Don Fabrizio muses about events that had already transpired and, what I found particularly great as well, we have teasers about the future of various buildings that would be bombed during WWII and the future of various characters. The central characters all have layers of depth to them which I found fascinating. I loved Tancredi’s swashbuckling attitude, Angelica’s seductive scheming and, of course, the disillusioned Prince. All the minor characters are also drawn with a fine brush – this short 400 word essay clearly does not do justice to this monument both of Italian literature (Il Gattopardo is considered the greatest work of Italian literature in the 20th C) and of the Italian language (which translated marvellously into French). By the way, the animal gattopardo is actually not a leopard but a serval (thanks Wikipedia!). The book is relatively short (295 pages) so I would highly recommend adding it to your reading list.

le_guepard-20101119072054The film of the same name by Visconti was released on 1962 – barely 5 years after the book was published (posthumously sadly for Lampedusa) and is a masterpiece. The color, the decor, the casting (Burt Lancaster is spellbinding as the Prince,  Alain Delon is a perfect Tancredi and the gorgeous Claudia Cardinale is fantastic as Angelica. The film is three hours long but never boring in the least. I felt that it was one of the most accurate (word for word in many of the dialogs and speeches) renditions of a book on the silver screen that I have ever seen. The secondary characters also have so much life breathed into them – Romolo Valli’s Pere Pirrone is unforgettable as is Serge Reggiani’s tragic Don Ciccio. The film departs from the book in that it shows a few war scenes that  are extremely well shot. The locations for Donnafugata are unbelievable as is the house near Palermo. Having spent 5 summers in Sicily, I can say that the countryside and the towns were very faithfully represented here. The most famous scene in the movie is the last 30 minutes and it is one of the most sumptuous, realistic, and remarkable sets I have ever seen. The sea of moving bodies dancing, the mountains of food, the impeccable costumes and makeup – you cannot help but ooh and ah out loud as you watch it.

I read the first third of the book, watched the movie up to that point, read the book up to the ball, finished the movie and then finished the book and I was very happy to fully appreciate both. The book actually has an additional two chapters that are not in the movie. The story behind that is that when Lampedusa had first finished his book, he sent the manuscript to a few publishers. Two of the primary editors in Italy turned him down. The first one he sent it to (a draft missing two chapters he finished before sending to the other two) was not read until 18 months later and it was subsequently published in 1957 (Lampedusa had already passed away of lung cancer a few months earlier) with the six chapters that had been sent originally. It was not until 1969 that the final two chapters (and a few fascinating, insightful fragments) were published. All that to say that the final two chapters did not officially exist when Visconti did his screenplay.

Has anyone out there read these or seen the movie? Let me know in the comments.

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About mfinocchiaro

IT Architecture Guru for large PLM software company but dabbling in Web 2.0 and other stuff.
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