My intent had been to start out this project with the highest-ranked film on the TSPDT list that I've never seen, but #64, Erich von Stroheim's epic Greed, is not presently available on DVD, and I have no access to a videocassette player. So I've had to go for a back-up: the second-highest-ranked film that I've never seen, coincidentally the first film I've ever seen by Luchino Visconti; and a very exciting introduction it is, at that.

Luchino Visconti di Modrone, Count of Lonate Pozzolo, son of the Duke of Grazzano, had a fairly unique perspective amongst filmmakers on the rise of Italian Republicanism and the fall of the Italian aristocracy, not only because he was one of the few filmmakers who was a member of that aristocracy, but because he perhaps the only aristocratic filmmaker who was also, from WWII onwards, a card-carrying member of the Italian Communist Party.

All of which is to say that there was literally no other man in history who could have turned Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa's novel The Leopard into the film that has been a cornerstone of the Italian cinema for over 40 years. Its simultaneously elegiac and satiric vision of the Sicilian nobility at the time of Italy's unification in the 1860s could only be the product of a man who both loved and despised that system, and who had the necessary artistic background to express that paradox in one of the most ambitious and exhausting historical epics ever filmed.

The Leopard tells one story that is in equal measures political, generational and personal, all centering around Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (an overdubbed Burt Lancaster, who still manages to give one of the most commanding performances of his career just through a subtle gamut of facial expressions), one of the most respected statesmen on the island of Sicily during the time of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, controlled by the French Bourbon family. His nephew, practically an adopted son, is Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who is at the start of the film a follower of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the revolutionary and Italian patriot who brought an army to Palermo to unseat the Bourbons.

Tancredi's first appearance is one of the key moments in a film that resists being reduced to a handful of iconic images. About twelve minutes into the film, he has already been spoken of at great length; his uncle and the family priest, Father Pirrone (the marvelous Romolo Valli) have shared concerns over the young man's association with such a destabilising force as Garibaldi represents, and we have already begun to see how deeply Fabrizio cares for his nephew. But it is not until the prince has returned to his private chambers in the family's Palermo residence that this idea is made concrete: Fabrizio shaves himself in a small mirror near a window, looking out over the city, and Tancredi's face appears over the prince's shoulder, delicately composed by Visconti and his indispensable cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunnio to appear in exactly the position that we would expect the prince's face to appear. It's the unmistakable sign of something that will be implied for the rest of the film: Tancredi is Fabrizio's youthful doppelganger, more passionate and unafraid than the aging prince, but at the same time less cautious and measured.

That the two men are not merely versions of each other, but mirror images - that is to say, opposites - is the central point in all that follows. Fabrizio slowly learns to appreciate the cynical wisdom of Tancredi's early catchphrase, "For everything to remain the same, things must change," meaning that for the nobility to retain their power, they must no longer be the nobility, but Fabrizio is too honorable a man to follow his nephew's path. As Tancredi insinuates himself into the new order of things, proposing marriage to Angelica Sedàra (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of the nouveau riche middle class landowner Calógero Sedàra (Paolo Stoppa), throwing his old ideologies to the wind as necessary to secure his position, Fabrizio is content instead to decline into irrelevance and archaism. The final shot of a film stuffed full of gorgeously designed palaces is of the old prince walking through a broken down ruin, while Tancredi is riding in a carriage and shrugging off the execution of his old comrades.

If we call The Leopard Italy's own version of Gone with the Wind,* we begin to understand some of its strengths and flaws. Like that American epic, this is a grand study of the old times coming to an end and the new times beginning that is significantly more universal than its highly specific trappings would suggest. It is gorgeous in every way, and much of the film, particularly in the opening, is dedicated to nothing more and nothing less than allowing the grandeur of a forgotten lifetime sweep over us. But like Gone with the Wind, The Leopard doesn't entirely justify its massive running time (195 minutes at its Cannes premiere, cut down to 180 minutes for the definitive Italian home video version - the US Criterion DVD, at 186 minutes, is simply the result NTSC speed-up).

The story is roughly divisible into thirds: for the first hour, almost to the minute, it is about the old aristocracy, embodied by the prince, recognising that the world is changing. The next hour, introduced by Calógero and his daughter and ten minutes contain a study of how the prince and his family adapt - by accepting fate or by gaming the system. This second part is longer than it needs to be, the point where Visconti's notoriously specific recreation of Italy in 1860 becomes so fussed-over as to seem a bit claustrophobic, and it is here that the specific politics of the story are the most opaque, particularly to a non-native viewer.

All is paid, however, by the extraordinary conclusion of the film, an almost 45 minute sequence dedicated solely to a dance held at the vast home of Donna Margherita (Lola Braccini), a positively ancient noblewoman whose balls are a society highlight. All the threads of the narrative come together flawlessly, and the remarkable skill with which Visconti and Rotunno capture the comings and goings of a seemingly infinite supply of partygoers has been rarely if ever equaled (I am most reminded of Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace from just a few years later, containing a similarly opulent ball sequence that does not come close to equaling the marathon length of the sequence in The Leopard). Every element of the sequence succeeds: the "last waltz" metaphor for the end of the aristocracy, the recording of long-dead customs, and even the simpler but not less valid delight in sheer abstract cinema, the colors and movements of players whose actions are perfectly choreographed on the dance floor and off.

It's the first time that the film has truly indulged itself in that kind of explosive visual pageantry, although it would be impossible to argue against the look of the whole work. Color in particular is used with impressive precision in The Leopard, all the more impressive when we consider the state of the color stock available in Italy in 1963. The film is mostly yellow and golden, from its opening shots, with the only pervasive color for most of the film the red and green that make up the new Italian flag. Particularly during the Battle of Palermo in the film's first quarter (the only sequence added to the novel in the adaptation), where the revolutionaries' color-coded uniforms stand out against the drab streets and the subdued Bourbon uniforms.

The Battle of Palermo is also an excellent showcase for one of the other great elements of Visconti's style: his use of camera movement. It's all too easy to compare any moving camera to the work of Renoir, but in the case of The Leopard it's almost impossible not to draw the connection, not because the two directors are so similar but because they are almost as far from each other as can be within a single technique. Where Renoir used movement to create three-dimensional spaces that acted almost like separate characters, Visconti uses movement to flatten out the film, so to speak, turning everything into a tableau. The highlight is a repeated motif used in every scene involving a religious ceremony, where the camera moves from face to face, all of them staring blandly. It's very presentational, resonating with the idea that both the dying nobility and the country replacing it are more concerned with surface than meaning - only the thoughtful like Fabrizio always command the camera around themselves, rather than simply move through its field of vision

The film is exhausting, but this is a sign of its intense personality: not just Visconti's private expression of his own concerns, but a heaving sigh from a country whose modern history is as chaotic and violent as any in the Western world. The conflict between the old and the new, and the way it tears apart the individual, is not a new topic for any art form, and there have been plenty of movies on that idea, but none seem to contain the whole world in their scope the way that The Leopard does. It is not without missteps or weak performances, but those things do little to counterbalance the film's effectiveness. It is one of the grandest and most overwhelming films of its kind, and one of the greatest.