Luchino Visconti's 1963 classic, The Leopard, captures the end of a way of life in Sicily

The goal of most revolutions is the removal of a ruling class to achieve the economic and social justice missing from the existing political order. But often after all the bloodletting, the result is merely the replacement of one elite by another, without any significant change in the lives of ordinary citizens.

Italians call this kind of preservation of the status quo trasformismo, a process by which seemingly dangerous revolutionary forces are transformed into stable elements of the system. The 1963 film, The Leopard, presents the trasformismo which took place in Sicily in the 1850s through the eyes of Fabrizio Falconieri, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster). His family survives the violent upheavals set in motion by Garibaldi through a cunning manipulation of personalities and social forces. But the natural momentum of Sicily's conservative culture also works in favor of their survival.

Based on a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the movie begins with the Prince's entire family and its household servants saying the rosary in the palace chapel. A dynamic faith is established as one of the pillars on which the old order rests. The service is disrupted by the discovery of a soldier's body in the garden. “It's the revolution,” says Father Pirrone (Romalo Valli), the family priest who fears social change.

Fabrizio, the family patriarch, is more cynical. He believes that the revolution has happened because the prosperous middle-class wants to run the country for itself. Despite repeated threats, it has no real desire to expropriate the aristocracy's wealth, only its power. There will be no fundamental economic changes, he predicts.

Father Pirrone is afraid the revolution will mean the expropriation of Church property. But his concern isn't for the preservation of clergy privileges. Instead he worries that there will be no resources to care for the poor.

Father Pirrone is meant to symbolize the relationship of the Church to the aristocracy, and he's depicted as deferring to the prince like a family retainer in most matters. But on some subjects, he's defiantly independent. The priest repeatedly asks the prince to confess his sexual sins even though it's clear these requests make Fabrizio uncomfortable. Father Pirrone also doesn't hesitate to argue about politics. He scolds the prince for his willingness to accommodate the revolution. “The Church has an explicit promise of immortality,” Fabrizio replies. “We do not.” So the aristocracy are forced to compromise to survive. The Church would be justified in selling out the upper classes in a similar manner, the prince reasons, if that were the price of her survival.

Fabrizio's nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), joins Garibaldi's rebels. The prince gives him a large sum of money as a gesture of support. The Falconieri family will now have someone on the inside should Garibaldi succeed.

The revolution's victory makes Tancredi a hero. The prince's daughter, Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi) is in love with him. But Fabrizio defies the rest of his family and encourages Tancredi to marry his own true love, the earthier Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of a revolutionary leader, Don Calogero Sedara (Paola Stoppi), whose wealth will help the penniless nobleman.

“You can't be as distinguished as Tancredi unless your ancestors have squandered fortunes,” the prince remarks.

Even as he engages in clever political maneuvering, Fabrizio continues to live in the grandiose manner of his ancestors. He uses his political clout, not for economic or social advantage, but to circumvent a revolutionary roadblock which prevents his entourage from traveling to his summer estate.

Director Luchino Visconti and his four co-screenwriters chronicle through Tancredi and Calogero the revolutionaries’ abandonment of their ideals. “We were leopards and lions, and those who replace us will be jackals and hyenas,” the prince observes. “And all of us will think we're the salt of the earth.”

Fabrizio also has a fatalistic view of Sicily's ability to respond to any kind of social change. Visconti evokes the prince's love for his native land by lingering on the beauty of the region's sunny landscapes and ornate palaces. The movie also makes the prince's dignified, graceful rhythms its own. Its pace is determined by the stately social rituals of the Falconieri family — its outdoor picnics, private Masses, and sumptuous balls.

The filmmakers lament the sellout of the revolution, balancing this with a melancholy nostalgia for the old order, including the Church. The Leopard is a visual poem for a class which loses its power but preserves its mystique.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.

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