Let’s begin with the ending of Visconti’s The Leopard. Having attended a ball that went all night and into the early hours of the next morning, Don Fabrizio Corbera, the Prince of Salina, refuses a carriage ride back to his estate. He decides he will walk home alone. This ending is not the ending of the novel. Visconti is faithful in his film adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, but Visconti’s film ends two chapters early. Missing from the film are further states of familial decline, which include the death of the Prince and reclusive behavior of his unmarried daughter, Concetta.
Visconti’s decision to end the film with the Prince’s solitary walk home — which does occur in the novel — is evidence of masterful cinematic storytelling. When presented visually in rich technicolor, the decorations of the ball and the costumes of its attendees are incredibly effective symbols of the Sicilian elite that is surviving for the moment, but which will be replaced in the new Italy. When the Prince leaves the ball and stands alone in the dull blue light of an alleyway, there is a strong feeling of emptiness in the post-festum.
The central theme of Visconti’s The Leopard is about the cultural evolution of political power. The aristocratic way of life, with all of its norms and values, is irrelevant for political power the moment a rich mayor from a disreputable background can wield more power than Don Fabrizio. That this theme is communicated mostly non-verbally is a credit to Visconti, but it is also a consequence of the novel. The novel does not provide a clear schematic of the roles and relationships of every revolutionary and counter-revolutionary faction involved in the Risorgimento. Rather, it lets the confusing mix of friends and enemies function as the backdrop that, sometimes, is embodied in the changing allegiances of Tancredi, the capricious nephew of Don Fabrizio. Thus, the lack of explanation in the novel plants the seed to use the rich visuals of a Sicilian ball as a portend of historical change. The novel also gave Visconti and the film’s producers a reason to cast Burt Lancaster for his physical stature. Don Fabrizio, like the audience, might not understand every maneuver in the Risorgimento, but it is also not his responsibility to explain this great political transformation in Italy to others. His role is less about what he says and more about how he carries himself before the eyes of others. He is keep his head high and carry the weight of his familial decline on his broad shoulders.