During an episode of the Pure Cinema Podcast from April, recorded remotely with guest Edgar Wright, the 1963 Italian film The Leopard came up in conversation. Co-host Elric Kane joked that this 3-hour-plus epic would be a great film to watch early in the morning. Since the coronavirus pandemic has made my schedule very flexible, especially on the weekends, I decided to wake up at 7:45 am on a Sunday to see if Kane was right.
One of the first things you notice about watching The Leopard early in the morning is that it wakes you up, quickly. That’s mostly due to legendary composer Nino Rota’s operatic score, which can act as the musical equivalent of a cup of coffee. But the colorful opening shots of the estate of protagonist Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina and patriarch of his aristocratic Sicilian family, set a visual tone that is as vibrant as that of its music. These first shots, even before we meet Corbera, are a perfect overture to the film’s story, which is especially relevant today.
The Leopard takes place in 1860 Sicily, shortly before Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand that helped lead to the Unification of Italy. The times that the Corbera family lives through are violent and uncertain, as symbolized by the appearance of the body of a dead soldier in their garden. Don Corbera, initially uncertain as to how to act, verbalizes the confusion that anyone can feel in a time of crisis: “We’re just human beings in a changing world. What should we do?” These words are particularly pertinent at a time when you are living through a pandemic that has killed over 520,000 people worldwide and upended the daily lives of billions of people, including your own.
The most random scenes from The Leopard can make you nostalgic for a time when it was safe to go outside and interact with people. One such example is when Corbera’s ambitious nephew Tancredi returns from a journey. The hugs and kisses that he received from relatives made me miss my family members whom I have not seen since January. A sequence where Tancredi’s family has dinner with his future in-laws reminded me of all of the dinners I have willingly given up in an effort to slow the spread of this terrible disease.
But The Leopard is relevant to watch during this period of time not only because it offers nostalgia for a time when people could gather safely without fear of getting COVID-19 (that’s actually the vast majority of movies). It reacts to the titanic changes of history with a fatalism that is oddly comforting. One of Tancredi’s most famous lines is “If we want things to stay the same, everything must change.” While the film’s portrait of a revolution whose greatest impact will be to replace the noble aristocracy represented by Don Cabrera with the gauche middle class represented by Tancredi’s future father-in-law Don Calogero Sedara is clearly meant to be depressing by director Luchino Visconti (who held the title Count of Lonate Pozzolo despite his Marxist beliefs), its view that social upheaval will ultimately fade can give you hope that we will live through this pandemic until the invention of a vaccine. The idea that human beings can endure, even if they face the loss of the nobility of the world they once knew, is comforting at a time when so many are sick and dying.
By the time I finished watching The Leopard in the early afternoon, I was elated. It is truly a great work of art, something you can tell from every note of masterful music and every shot that feels like it should be hung in a museum. Like all great works of art, it offers different types of meaning every time you revisit it. When I first saw it in high school, it was simply an epic I enjoyed. This time, it offered an unintentional yet strangely moving tribute to humanity’s ability to endure and adapt in the face of violent upheaval (something that will become more relevant as global warming accelerates). I don’t know what The Leopard will mean to me the next time I revisit it, although I suspect that I will identify more with Don Cabrera as I get older. For now, however, I will simply be grateful that I watched this masterpiece in a way that Visconti never intended: on my laptop, in an apartment in Los Angeles, during the early hours of the morning.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.