I finally got to see Visconti’s Il gattopardo (The Leopard) for the first time in years (it was sold out last weekend, when my wife and I went into Manhattan to see it; see MISCONOSCENZA for links on novel and movie), and I was struck by its vindication of Pound’s famous dictum that “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.” The movie opens with an exterior shot of a grand villa; the camera slowly circles through the brilliant Sicilian light as it approaches and we begin to hear the sounds of a religious service from within. Then the camera enters a window, and we move into a dark room where people are sullenly listening to the thousandth repetition of the Ave Maria. After the Prince brings the proceedings to an abrupt end, he walks into another room; in the course of the following scene the words “È la rivoluzione!” [It’s the revolution!] are spoken, and at that moment the Prince is standing in front of a tall narrow window through which a breeze pushes a filmy white curtain. The sudden incursion of light and air is the perfect image of revolution in the context of this man and this house, where the dark comfort of age-old aristocratic habit is about to be invaded by new people and new ideas—to which the Prince is drawn, as we cannot help being drawn by light and air. But Visconti is no Pollyanna about revolution; the next scene, not in the book, is an extended street battle for Palermo, with Garibaldi’s redshirts frantically trying to drive out the royal troops. It’s long, confused, brutal, full of smoke and noise and the anguished cries of women; we’re left in no doubt as to what revolution means in practice. But the idea of it, the “breath of fresh air,” is intoxicating and seductive.
Later we see the Prince in his observatory; much is made of his astronomy in the novel, but in the movie it’s almost ignored except in this scene, where the sight of his telescopes, without a word being said about them, brings forcibly to the mind the idea that this man sees farther than those about him. There must be a thousand words about his comet-hunting in the book; this picture by itself has the impact of all of them.
Other things are lost, of course; when the Prince’s hunting companion Don Ciccio tells him bitterly that his “no” vote in the Plebiscite was not counted, we miss the author’s remark that “una parte della neghittosità, dell’acquiescenza per la quale durante i decenni seguenti se doveva vituperare la gente del Mezzogiorno, ebbe la propria origine nello stupido annullamento della prima espressione di libertà che a questo popolo si era mai presentata” [part of the sloth for which the South would be reproached in the coming decades had its origin in the stupid annulment of the first expression of freedom this people had ever been allowed] (the entire passage is here in Italian). Books and movies are different things, with different virtues. But a good director can use images to communicate directly and efficiently things that take a writer many words, even pages, if they can be said in words at all.