(Originally published on the Examiner in August 2009, this review has been moved here in its entirety.)
If Italian films from the forties and fifties were dominated by a hard-bitten look at the present, with a transforming Italy moving from fascism and war through poverty and ruin to the cautious construction of a modern postwar world, then Italian cinema of the sixties can be seen as one long, mournful elegy for the lost past, in a variety of different keys. At the dawn of the decade, neorealism had already been relegated to the past, but that movement's overarching social critique and devotion to intense observation of daily life continued to inform works crafted by the best Italian directors. These qualities were put to work in a series of wildly different yet equally powerful films, which together paint a coherent picture of a nation caught in the whirlwind, its people having severed their roots once and for all, yet unable to establish connections to the new world being born around them.
Ermanno Olmi, in Il Posto, tracked an upwardly mobile member of the working class as he moved into a professional job, finding the financial security that his family lacked. Yet in order to gain tenuous ground in an uncertain future, he was leaving the familiarity of a more traditional world behind. The fiery Pier Paolo Pasolini's characters had far less opportunities, but were no less driven - often into self-destruction. In his Mamma Roma, it is not the world which is fluid and unstable, but the people in it, represented by the cut from the wild grieving of a heartbroken woman to the static cityscape out her window. Solid and implacable, the vista may mock her ferocious energy and ambition, may even defeat it, but such energy could not be negated - Italians were on the move, whether or not Italy itself was ready or open to such movement. (This sensation was also evoked earlier in the film, as an adolescent roamed through a hilly landscape dotted with looming stone monoliths, their weirdly erratic stability contrasted with his - and the camera's - restlessness. The tense, plangent classical score on the soundtrack echoed his own inner stirrings.)
Of course there was Michelangelo Antonioni, whose highly formalist portraits of alienation also juxtaposed humans to landscapes, though in this case they seemed to cower, uncertain in the face of looming reality. Not content to let these implications speak for themselves, the writer/director of L'Avventura stated his intention baldly and boldly: "And today a new man is being born, fraught with all the fears, terrors and stammerings that are associated with a period of gestation." Even the fantasist - and (hence?) most popular of the Italians - Federico Fellini - focused his two crucial early sixties works, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, on anxiety caught in the cross-hairs between past and present, desire and responsibility. Meanwhile a younger generation, even less situated in Italy's past than its elders, regarded the last holdovers of an old society with a mixture of bitterness and nostalgia. The bitter was best represented by Marco Bellochio with his scathing debut Fists in the Pocket - a brutally funny, and frightening, screed against the nuclear family in which the rebellious and murderous outbursts of our protagonist, initially seeming free-spirited, were eventually revealed as the self-realization of a fascist.
And then there's the nostalgia. Two directors, one very young, one middle-aged, looked longingly upon the trappings and conventions of civilized life, even as they ambivalently touted the revolution. Ironically, it was the younger of the two directors - Bernardo Bertolucci, who was about 23 when he shot Before the Revolution - who clings most fervently to the old ways. Bertolucci's hero, a young Communist, is unable to break his bonds to the comforts of the upper class and "the sweetness of life before the revolution." (Bertolucci is still exploring the tensions between his sensual, poetic sensibilities and his political radicalism - the recent film The Dreamers was a meditation on that very ambivalence.) The older director - Luchino Visconti - sees change as inevitable, but is just as ambivalent as Bertolucci about its desirability. Unlike the work of the younger sensual Marxist, Visconti's period picture The Leopard (based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa) is not set before the revolution, but after. Hence the world being mourned is experienced only in its dying gasp, like a life flashing before one's eyes at the moment of death.
It is worth noting that The Leopard does not open after the aristocratic ruling class of Sicily has fallen (to the unifying revolution of Garabaldi and, more importantly, the bourgeoisie). Instead it opens with the beginning of the end, albeit with a hint of the complete destruction that awaits its upper-class characters. The credits unfold over images of empty courtyards, seemingly abandoned towers displayed in their crumbling glory. We're not sure yet if we're in the nineteenth century or the twentieth; these shots could just as easily belong to a documentary about Sicilian landmarks as to a feature which takes place when those landmarks were still in use. Finally, as the titles end, the camera begins to move, and with its movement we are swept into the past: a pan along the exterior of an old mansion, accompanied by muffled Latin prayers and shouting in the distance, eventually reveals an open window through which we can see the Salina family kneeling for an informal Mass - only to be interrupted by a growing clamor outside: a dead soldier has been found in the courtyard.
Like the detached ear in Blue Velvet, the dead soldier represents an incursion of the strange and threatening into the enclosed, comfortable world of the protagonists; but the Salinas are already aware of what the soldier represents, and know that he is just the first drop in the bucket. Indeed, as they "celebrate" Mass with their affable yet comical and ineffective priest, they are all costumed entirely in black; while this is most likely their common Sabbath dress, the image undoubtedly calls to mind a funeral. Thus the very first time we see the family they are grieving for the loss, not of a specific person, but of their own way of life. Although Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (a justly celebrated Burt Lancaster, dubbed into Italian for this print) spends the entire film maneuvering to preserve his family's status, even as its actual power slips away, there is a sense that a line has been crossed and with time, the new Italy will completely shake off the privileges of the aristocracy. (When the Salinas are warmly welcomed to their secluded vacation home, they step out of the carriage covered head to toe in dust; as the camera pans over the family sitting in church all that redeems their ridiculous appearance - and the irrelevance it suggests - is their self-contained dignity.)
Some aristocrats are able to ride the wave of change into the heart of the new society - Tancredi Falconari (Alain Delon), the Prince's charismatic but entirely opportunistic young nephew, even fights alongside Garabaldi before joining the new state's army and marrying Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale), the gorgeous daughter of the shrewd but gauche bourgeois official Don Calogero (Paolo Stoppa). On the surface, the Prince seems to be one of those malleable nobles, making public gestures toward the the nation-state, courteously suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous manners when entertaining the new elite, even setting up the marriage between Tancredi and Angelica (whom he seems to be a bit in love with himself; her dazzling looks and inadvertently awkward social skills perfectly embody the enticing yet rude new world of the bourgeoisie).
Yet despite all these gestures, the Prince knows that his time is running out. When offered a position in the Italian senate, he politely declines and offers a fatalistic viewpoint on Sicily, speculating that it is impervious to change, that its people will never warm up to progress even if it's in their best interests. His feelings do seem reflected by the harsh landscape and backward society around him, but it's also clear that the grim sentiments are more an expression of his own self-view than that of his people: he has accepted his own decline gracefully, even wistfully, and the final sequence - a grand ball which consumes the entire last act of the epic story - seems to show him recognizing, completely and directly, what it is he has lost.
Keep in mind that despite the movie's running time and grand sets, the film focuses mostly on scenes of dialogue, of customs and interactions, backroom deal-making and diplomatic maneuvers. There is one battle scene, which at times feels too orchestrated, and one of the conversations is held on a hillside overlooking the broad expanse of the Sicilian town, but for the most part the epic qualities are relegated to theme and character - and to the grandeur of the interiors - rather than to expensive set pieces or expansive narrative developments. The exception is that final ball, not only because a cast of tens of thousands pours into the ballroom and banquet, but because the Prince had made all the arrangements for the future and is now face-to-face with his irrelevance and mortality for the first time.
Something hangs in the air, barely articulated, yet it is felt deeply, and is displayed as the Prince dances a final dance with Angelica, as he sits alone in a room pondering the deathbed in a painting, and as he silently broods in the early dawn, disappearing into the shadows of a back alley, when several shots ring out. A small band of soldiers, who had deserted to rejoin Garabaldi's forces, have been executed - this is not yet their time; meanwhile the Prince's has already passed. And so the Prince himself disappears, dying a spiritual if not corporeal death, into a new world which also, in time, will come to pass (see those films set one hundred years later). Which reminds us that all of society exists in a state of impermanence and that, one day, the Prince's fate will be our own too - the only question is with how much dignity and stoicism one faces the cold dawn.