Revisiting the film now, I realize that I was too caught up in looking for an exact replica of the novel, and that was not Visconti's project. The film is a masterpiece, in dialogue with its source material, but not a mere imitation. And this is fitting, for the most celebrated and famous quotation of the novel is in fact: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." A more succinct translation of the concept of trasformismo, I am not capable of writing. Both novel and film follow the leonine, aging Prince Salina (Burt Lancaster) as he ironically observes the events of the Italian Unification from his ancestral estates in Sicily, giving his blessing to his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon), who falls in love with the bourgeois Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), a match that would have been impossible before Garibaldi's Red Shirts embarked on their famous climb up the Italian Boot.
Lampedusa was in fact the last Prince Lampedusa and the novel's politics speak to that fact, to his mourning for the end of his lineage and the desecration of the family palazzo and to his ambivalence towards the Italian Unification, a long, bloody process usually celebrated as a decade of heroism, the extinction of a paternalistic, feudalistic aristocratic reign and the birth of representative government. Visconti, too, was an aristocrat, but he was also a card-carrying member of the Italian Communist Party, and for this he was known as the Red Count. The film adaptation diverges most from the novel by including a lengthy sequence, during which the protagonists are absent, of the battle between the Garibaldini and the Royalist forces for the city of Palermo. Reminiscent of the siege of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, it's a bloody, frenetic interlude, a gaping hole in the aristocratic decorum and sedate luxury of the Prince of Salina's life. However, the film subtly critiques the political despair of the novel: the transfer of power from occupiers, colonists, small monarchies, and the papacy to a national government, with the Piedmontese king at its head, was less a victory than a slight shift in power with monumental consequences. The radical democratic and egalitarian impulses of Garibaldi and the impassioned patriotic utopianism of Mazzini became mere rhetorical implements to toss away once Cavour's crafty diplomacy and power machinations succeeded as not merely a strategy but the very means of Italian governance, but in 1963, hope burgeoned that the evils of corrupt government, repressive social structures, and class inequality could be defeated. The prince's statement in 1860 that Sicilian poverty would last at least another century or two was not so pessimistic in a film made a century afterwards. The red of the uniform of the Garibaldini could just as easily be the red of the communists; the change in the noble Tancredi's uniform, from Garibaldino red to monarchical blue, is not commented upon at random. Red was defeated once, but red fights again in Palermo through the magic of film.
The political commentary, though, is fodder for academics; the film's beauty and sensuality, its immersive techniques, can be marveled at and reveled in by any viewer. Visconti achieves something perfectly in The Leopard, something he strove to achieve in all his films: the viewer has a distinct sense of being thrown into a real, living, vital world. There are doors to unexplored rooms, roads to populated towns, the books can be read, the dust can work its way into seams and wrinkles, a celebratory cake with green icing can be tasted. At the end of the ball, crushed flowers and torn bits of tulle and lace drift under the last dancers' tripping feet. There isn't a single character, even the savagely gorgeous Angelica, who doesn't sweat in the stultifying Sicilian heat. This miraculous recreation of a world in its death throes is more than inviting: the viewer actually becomes a fellow ghost wandering through the cobweb-draped, unused rooms of the Salina palazzo. This immersiveness, more than the complicated political and romantic events of the plot, justify the film's lengthy running time of more than three hours. One needs time to look at the chandeliers glittering with candles, the hunting dog taking a spare moment to dig under a rock, the dabbing of cologne on a handkerchief; one needs time to hear the crepuscular chanting of the rosary, the bird-like chatter of girls at a ball. More than once, the camera takes up the position of a character and Tancredi, or Angelica, or Don Calogero, her absurd father in an ill-fitting tuxedo, look directly into the viewer's eyes.
Visually, each frame is like a painting; aurally, The Leopard resembles an opera: this is so in nearly all of Visconti's post-neorealist work. But only Senso rivals this film in its engagement with Italy as an invented nation. In the Divine Comedy, Dante dreamed up a unified Italian peninsula, and since then Italians and the Italian diaspora have either accepted some conception or other of what Italy actually means without thinking past rhetoric, or done what Visconti has done in The Leopard: try to create Italy anew from a fragmented history of the stitching together of distinct regions, an Italy that might perhaps never exist except in the future.