How to begin an epic (nello stile di Visconti)

[Note: I am writing this rather long post as a personal exercise in narrative elucidation. If you find it interesting, then I am glad. If you decide to pass over it for better things, I am also glad. Life is too short!]

It is well known that Luchino Visconti was both an Aristocrat (Duke of Modrone) and a life-long communist. Having directed preter-neo-realist (Ossession) and classic neo-realist (La Terra trema) films, he also directed lavish films about the aristocratic class, such at Senso – for which he was criticized for having abandoned neo-realism (though it’s arguable he did not). Visconti was a man of contrasts and, at least from the outside, of contradictions. A highly cultured aristocrat and an avowed communist, his filmmaking was the ground on which he worked out these tensions, often to stunning effect.

How then might one, Visconti of course, criticize the class from which he came? He does so in his magnificent film The Leopard (1963), based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel of the same name. However, the criticism is done, not harshly, but lovingly and with great insight. The opening sequence, what I want to look closely at here, sets the stage for both the themes in the film and the method of articulation.

The opening shot of The Leopard begins as the backdrop for the opening titles. The film is a vast, sweeping portrayal of the Italian unification period (Risorgimento) of the 19th century, shot (stunningly by Giuseppe Rotunno) in Super Technirama (aspect ratio of 2.21:1), so it is interesting that the first shot has the camera stuck in the trees with the leaves hiding the view. (figure 1) [note: my screen grab for figure 1 is not exactly 2.21:1, but the rest are correct]

figure 1

But then the camera begins to move to the right to reveal a building in the distance, carefully framed by the branches, enveloped in green olive trees, and secured behind a wrought iron gate. (figure 2)

figure 2

The camera continues to move to the right, still with its focal point the building in the distance. When the camera comes to a stop the building, now visually framed by ancient carved stone pillars, is still viewed from behind the gate, and seemingly to be both emerging from and sinking into the vibrant green foliage of the surrounding olive trees and other plants. (figure 3)

figure 3

The wrought iron gate, with the estate securely ensconced behind it, connotes the similar kind of beginning one finds in Citizen Kane. The reference suggests that this story, for all its historical grandeur and Super Technirama visuals, is going to center around one singular, powerful figure who will fall, not really because of outside forces, but of internal corruption and self-delusions.

The next shot begins with a shot of the trees in the field. (figure 4)

figure 4

Then the camera moves in a sweeping motion up and to the right to reveal an ancient bust (statue) from some apparently glorious past age. (figure 5)

figure 5

Italy is a country of multiple glorious and inglorious pasts. Which means that it is also a country of change, even while things stay the same. The verdant and vibrant growth of the trees (something new and growing up from the earth) connotes the changes taking place at the foot of the statue. The statue, a majestic and dilapidated figure, beautiful and impotent, hovers pointlessly over the field. Yet, for how pointless it is, the statue still captures our attention, for the trees are mere trees, but this figure says something about where we (humanity) have come from, who we are, or are capable of having been. What then of this contrast? Certainly, if the contrast is a political contrast, it is a gentle and beautiful reference – something akin to a kind of sentimentally of a forever lost past.

The next shot also begins with the trees. (figure 6)

figure 6

And again the camera sweeps up and right, but this time instead of a statue we see the building again. (figure 7)

figure 7

Now the connection has been made more concretely between the old and new, the natural beauty of the new and the ancient beauty of a man-made past, an ancien régime. Should we see, then, that this building, this beautiful Italia villa as standing for a kind of impotency?

More to the point, and in keeping with what is obvious in the film, this dichotomy between and ordered and structured world on the one hand and a natural and wild world on the other, symbolically prefigures the clash between the established order and revolution. Architecturally the villa is, from a distance at least, simple and box-like. Its windows are uniformly spaced and it lines are clear. The olive orchard, on the other hand, juts up toward the villa like a crowd massing around a palace in protest. And yet, what is so interesting about this film, and Visconti in general, is the lack of any obvious animosity. The scene, the juxtaposition is beautiful, as is the entire film, including the battle of Pamplona with its stunningly beautiful representation of the hysterical brutality of war.

Visconti had the ability to tell stories of both beauty and ugliness. In this sense he saw political struggles to be like human beings: glorious and corrupt at the same time. For, although Visconti was an aristocrat and a communist, he was first and foremost a humanist with a deep empathy for human weakness.

As an American I have to admit a certain perspective. Born in a country born of revolution I have an affinity for the revolutionary thrust of the (Risorgimento. As a person somewhere between proletariat and petit-bourgeoisie I easily believe I can identity with the ruling class – especially if it is royalty. (Identifying with the struggles and desires of the aristocracy – especially that of western mythology – has always been a pastime of the middle class.) And, as a person from the “new world” I have a tendency toward romanticizing the “old world.” When I see the image of the villa I do not first see an image of the aristocratic class that must be, or has been, done away with. What I see is something like what Frances Mayes describes in here book Under a Tuscan Sun when she was contemplating buying the house Bramasole – a house that has a name no less!:

“On the other hand, a dignified house near a Roman road, an Etruscan (Etruscan!) wall looming at the top of the hillside, a Medici fortress in sight, a view toward Monte Amiata, a passageway underground, one hundred and seventeen olive trees, twenty plums, and still uncounted apricot, almond, apple, and pear trees. Several figs seem to thrive near the well. Beside the front steps there’s a large hazelnut. Then, proximity to one of the most superb towns I’ve ever seen. Wouldn’t we be crazy not to buy this lovely house call Bramasole?”

Wouldn’t everyone? Visconti’s villa is still a dreamy object of desire while representing an object (the ruling class) to overturn.

Visconti, I believe, has thus far given us clues to the nature of this story, yet he has done so in a subtle way such that one could easily be pulled in to the luscious grandeur of the ruling class, to see Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (played wonderfully by Burt Lancaster) as a good man, and to miss the fact that we have fallen for Visconti’s little trap. The prince is not a good man, but reviewers of The Leopard have pointed out Visconti’s empathy toward the prince; something not lost on Visconti’s critics who believed he had abandoned the precepts of neo-realism and its political foundations. But, of course, we have not yet seen this prince.

Not every shot from the opening sequence is discussed here, but it is clear that the villa is the centrally denoted object of the title sequence. Eventually the camera begins to dolly closer to the villa as though being drawing toward the building by an unseen force. Finally the camera is at the villa, no trees blocking our view. (figure 8)

figure 8

What is interesting from all these shots is the absence of any human beings. The story is not yet a story, rather, we have a kind of preamble of contrasts; a preparing for the contrasts between order and revolution that is to come.

This shot is also the first time that human activity (finally) begins to intrude into the scene. We hear voices, somewhat indistinct, reciting the rosary in Latin. The camera begins to track along the outside of the house, passing the curtained windows, until we arrive at this window and see the first person we’ve seen in the film; a kneeling, praying person. (figure 9)

figure 9

Wind blows the curtain which partially blocks our view of the room and those in it. Then we cut to the interior of the villa. (figure 10)

figure 10

Again the curtain partially blocks the room and its inhabitants until the camera pans slowly to the right to reveal a room full of people kneeling, praying the rosary in unison.Curtains have played interesting roles in film history, often signifying the limits of what is revealed and what cannot be revealed. [I remember as a child watching films at a local theater where a large red curtain opened to reveal the screen, signaling the begining of the film. That was always a momentous moment for me.] In this case the window curtain may function as a means by which the play begins, like a curtain rising in the theater. Or, it may act as a kind of ephemeral threshold over which we cross to enter the story. However, it is interesting to observe the fact that the curtain is being blown by the wind. The wind is a part of nature, like the trees in the orchard, and we (via the camera’s movements) enter the room on the wind, as it were. Here is a room full of the ruling class (interesting to those who know of Visconti’s aristocratic heritage and communist commitments), praying the rosary in Latin (a fact not lost on post Vatican II Italian audiences I’m sure), and we enter through a window (rather Brechtian if you ask me) on a revolutionary wind. To seal the thrust of this opening sequence, and to officially begin the story, the rosary is interrupted by the shouts of the estate’s workers who have found a body of a dead soldier in the orchard. Again, the wild world of the orchard competes with the established order of the villa.

This series of opening shots are, in my opinion, the work of a master filmmaker who knows where he is going and from where he has come. If we do not pay attention me might assume these opening shots are just functional establishing shots acting as a mere backdrop for the film’s credits. Instead, we get a vision of how one might invite a viewer into the grand world of a human-scaled epic.

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