Sicily, 1860. The corpse of a Royalist soldier is found in the garden of the villa of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (the gardener quips that these soldiers stink as much in death as they do in life). As the Prince's large family enjoys the customary comforts and privileges of an ancient and noble name, including private services with their Jesuit priest, war has broken out between the King's army and the insurgent volunteer redshirts of Giuseppe Garibaldi. Among the rebels is the Prince's remarkably handsome and dashing nephew, Tancredi, with whose romantic politics the Prince shares some whimsical sympathy (and a good deal of material support—Tancredi is a notorious spendthrift).
Moved by the political uprising, the Prince departs, with his priest as cover, for a nearby town where he engages in an assignation with a local woman; he complains that, despite siring seven children upon his devout Catholic wife, he has yet to see her navel. Garibaldi's army conquers the city and Sicily from the Bourbons, but the mood is muted and the prospects murky. The Prince muses upon the inevitability of change, with the middle class displacing the hereditary ruling class while on the surface everything remains the same. His priest worries about the future of the church under the Garibaldini, but the Prince assures him that it is only his class who has anything to lose.
Refusing to bend to the tide of necessity, the Prince departs from Palermo for his summer palace at Donnafugata. The glamour of his name is still such as to lift roadblocks and allow passage to his family across disputed terrain. Arriving in the hilltop town, the Prince establishes his life just as it was always lived—hunting, social visits, etc.—despite the fact that a new national assembly has called a plebiscite which (thanks to the corrupt zealotry of the town's leading citizen, the incorrigibly bourgeois Don Calogero Sedara), the nationalists win 512-0. Sedara's grip on power and property in the region is matched only by his fawning sycophancy toward the Prince, whose incontestable nobility of character and ancestry leave Sedara looking distinctly plebeian.
The Prince learns from his hunting companion, the town organist, that Sedara's wife is never seen publicly, as Sedara jealously guards her rare loveliness; furthermore she is an illiterate peasant he keeps merely as a breeding stock. Their only progeny, the exquisitely beautiful Angelica, on the other hand, Sedara clearly sees as a ticket of admittance to the high-class soirées of the nobility. Bringing her with him to the villa of the Salinas, he watches as both the Prince and Tancredi fall abjectly in love with her. Realizing his chance, he effectively pimps his daughter to the aristocracy; and Tancredi, as the only unmarried eligible member of the clan, offers his hand. This devastates the Prince's daughter, Concetta, who had formed a passionate attachment to her cousin, not unreasonably based on his florid demonstrations of affection; which he now forgoes in an instant. The Prince sees the wisdom of the match, since he knows his nephew's vaulting ambition and need for ready cash, which Angelica's father, greedy for familial prestige, will happily make available. So, with the mutual blessing of the Prince of Salina and Don Calogero, Tancredi and Angelica become engaged.
During the lull after this notable event, a visitor from the constituent assembly comes to the villa, hoping for a private interview with the Prince. When his chance comes, he begs the great scholar and nobleman to join the senate and help direct the ship of state; particularly he hopes that the Prince's great compassion and wisdom will help alleviate the poverty and ignorance to be seen everywhere on the streets of Sicily. But the Prince demurs and refuses this invitation, claiming that Sicily prefers its sleep to the agitations of modernity. He sees a future when the leopards and the lions, along with the sheep and the jackals, will all live according to the same law, but he does not want to be a part of this democratic vision. He notes that Tancredi has shifted allegiances from the insurgent Garibaldini to the King's army, and wistfully recognizes in his nephew the kind of opportunist and time-server who will flourish in the new Italy.
A great ball is held at the villa of a neighbouring Prince, and the Salinas attend, along with a large troop from the King's army, and Tancredi, who uses this occasion to introduce his fiancée to society. Afflicted by a combination of melancholia, dyspepsia, and age, the Prince wanders forlornly from chamber to chamber, increasingly disaffected by the entire edifice of the society he so gallantly represents; until, at his nadir, Angelica approaches and asks him to dance. Stirred and momentarily released from his cares, the great Prince accepts and for three minutes he is once more the elegant and dashing figure of his past, as he holds in his arms the inordinate beauty of the Italy to come, which he will never inhabit.
The film features an international cast including the American Burt Lancaster, the Frenchman Alain Delon , the Italian Claudia Cardinale (who is dubbed in the Italian version by Solvejg D'Assunta because his native tongue was French) and Terence Hill (Mario Girotti). In the Italian-language version, Lancaster's lines are dubbed into Italian by Corrado Gaipa; while in the 161-minute U.S English dubbed version, Lancaster's original voice work is heard.
When Visconti was told by producers that they needed to cast a star in order to help to ensure that they'd earn enough money to justify the big budget, the director's first choice was one of the Soviet Union's preeminent actors, Nikolai Cherkasov. Learning that Cherkasov was in no condition, Twentieth Century Fox stipulated that the star should be either Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Spencer Tracy or Burt Lancaster. The producers chose Hollywood star Burt Lancaster without consulting Visconti, which insulted the director and caused tension on the set; but Visconti and Lancaster ended up working well together, and their resulting friendship lasted the rest of their lives.
The film was a big hit at the French box office.
At the time of its release in the summer of 1963, the majority of critics panned the film. According to Newsweek, Lancaster looked "as if he's playing Clarence Day's Life with Father in summer stock.". Jonathan Miller of The New Yorker derided Lancaster as "muzzled by whiskers and clearly stunned by the importance of his role.". However Time magazine praised the characterisation of the titular Leopard as solid and convincing.
Later opinion was more forgiving, New York Magazine calling the now-famous ballroom scene "almost unbearably moving." Director Martin Scorsese considers the film to be one of the greatest ever made.
The Leopard has circulated in at least four different versions. Visconti's first cut was 205-minutes long, but was felt to be excessive in length by both the director and producer, and was shortened to 195-minutes for its Cannes Film Festival premiere. Visconti then cut the film further to 185-minutes for its official release, and considered this version to be his preferred one. The U.S English-dubbed version, in which the Italian and French actors were dubbed over (except for Burt Lancaster, whose original English voice work is heard), was edited down to 161-minutes by its distributor 20th Century Fox.
The film was parodied by Sergio Corbucci's I figli del leopardo.1963 Cannes Film Festival
Winner: Palme d'Or – Luchino Visconti
Winner: Silver Ribbon – Luchino Visconti
Winner: Best Cinematography, Color (Migliore Fotografia a Colori) – Giuseppe Rotunno
Winner: Best Costume Design (Migliori Costumi) – Piero Tosi
Winner: Best Production Design (Migliore Scenografia) – Mario Garbuglia
Nominated: Best Costume Design, Color – Piero Tosi
There are several DVD editions available.Region 2 (Italy) The Medusa Home Entertainment release (released in 2001) contains the 185-minute Italian version with several bonus features and interviews. This release is not English-friendly.
Region 2 (U.K.) The BFI Video release offers a restored version of the Italian cut with an audio commentary by David Forgacs and Rossana Capitano.
Region 2 (Japan) The Toho release contains an unrestored version of the Italian cut in the original audio (Japanese subs), and a rare alternative English dubbed track (different than the shorter U.S version). Extras are text based bios and facts in Japanese. This release is also not English-friendly.
Region 1 (U.S) The Criterion Collection release is a 3-disc set containing a restored version of the 185-minute Italian version (with optional English subtitles), several bonus features, interviews, an audio commentary by Peter Cowie, and the 161-minute U.S English dubbed version as an extra.
Blu-ray release.Region A (U.S) The Criterion Collection 2-disc Blu-ray set boasts a transfer of the 185-min Italian version in 1080P, most of the DVD bonus materials plus newly created ones, and the 161-minute U.S English dubbed version in 1080i.
The original 8-perforation Technirama camera negative for The Leopard survives and was used by The Criterion Collection to create their video master for DVD and Blu-ray, with color timing supervised by the film's cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno. New preservation film elements were created using a 4K digital scan of the film, done with the cooperation of the Cineteca di Bologna, L'Immagine Ritrovata, The Film Foundation, Gucci, Pathé, Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, Twentieth Century Fox, and Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia-Cineteca Nazionale. This restoration premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival to great fanfare.