In this sumptuous and luscious adaptation of the eponymous novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Visconti paints a rich portrait of Sicily during the war of independence in 1860 and the following years, bringing to life Prince Fabrizio (Lancaster) and his family and retainers. In a period of political and social upheaval Fabrizio Cordero, Prince of Salina, refuses to take sides while his young and dashing nephew, Tancredi (Delon) Prince of Falconieri, joins Garibaldi and his volunteers to free Sicily from the Bourbons and be part of the newly created kingdom of Italy. The two characters embody the dichotomy of old and new: Fabrizio represents the fading aristocracy while Tancredi, who is smart and ambitious, is the emerging ruling class.
Prince Fabrizio is cynical and jaded but also proud of his name and family and attached to tradition. He is torn between upholding the continuity of upper class values, and breaking tradition to secure continuity of his family’s influence. On the other hand, Tancredi sees right away the need for the aristocracy to adapt and transform itself in order to be influential when the new order is established. As a mean to this end he fights on the side of the revolutionary (later joining the regular Savoy army) and starts courting Angelica (Cardinale), beautiful daughter of Don Calogero Sedara (Stoppa), nouveau riche and newly elected mayor of Donnafugata (small town near the Salina estate).
The film follows quite faithfully the book, keeping as main theme the struggle between mortality and decay (death, fading of beauty, fading of memories, change of political system.) and abstraction and eternity (the prince’s love for the stars and calculations, continuity and resilience to change of the Sicilian people). Burt Lancaster’s brilliant and nuanced performance (the best of his career) is what makes it really work, lavish and rich costumes and settings notwithstanding, and Delon and Cardinale are perfect and stunningly beautiful in their roles.
The most memorable sequence is the ball when Angelica is officially presented as Tancredi’s fiancee and the most memorable quote (directly from the book) is: Things will have to change in order that they remain the same (said by Prince Fabrizio). Spectacular and captivating —9/10