The Russian Revolution, and the Italian Risorgimento: two different revolutions. One, cataclysmic; one, not so much. Transforming Russia from a backward agrarian society into a totalitarian industrial giant. Transforming the Italian peninsula from a motley of states into a unified “modern” nation. I indulged my abiding interest in Josef Stalin by watching The Inner Circle (1991) by Andrei Konchalovsky, and I’m prepping for a trip to the Piedmont region of Italy, where The Risorgimento originated, by watching Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) again, and re-reading the novel by Lampedusa on which it is based.
Konchalovsky, who was quite successful within the Soviet cinema world, relates that he offered a bottle of brandy to a projectionist if the man would tell him the opinions of the state censors for whom he was screening his latest film. The man revealed that he had lots of stories to tell about what Stalin used to say about films! He was the Kremlin projectionist for years: Konchalovsky was ready to listen, and The Inner Circle is the story of this Kremlin functionary.
The film has some odd things about it, including a score that seems to grow loud and sentimental at the worst moments, and the fact that all the dialog is in English spoken with Russian accents. Seems a bit hokey at times. The problem of subtitles and translation was handled more creatively in The Hunt for Red October, about the only good thing I recall from that film. Tom Hulce plays the projectionist, and he holds onto his pure country-bumpkin good-Ivan characterization a bit too long, but to anyone familiar with Russian history, he’s still believable.
There is a scene where the film breaks during a screening for Stalin, and the projectionist explains that the projector is a poor copy of an excellent German machine – the head of the Cinema Bureau, responsible for these things, is standing right there – and has an inferior spring part that caused the break. Stalin uses the incident to indulge his sadistic bent, lightly bandying with the bureau chief who is sweating profusely, while Beria – head of the secret police – notes sarcastically that someone wasn’t doing their duty. This is the sort of thing that can end with a bullet to the head administered some random dead of night. It’s a chilling set-piece of Stalin’s daily modus operandi. If you want a sense of the brutal moral degradation imposed on the Soviet citizenry by Stalin, apart from the mass murder itself, this is not a bad film to see.
Meanwhile, back in Sicily, The Prince is speaking dubbed Italian in Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard. Panned at first, it is now highly rated: Martin Scorsese, not surprisingly, rates it among the greatest of all films. Why no surprise? Because Scorsese, as one critic noted, is no great sociologist, and naturally he is entranced by Visconti’s lush nostalgia for a period of elegance decayed.
Starting to read the novel again, I noted right away that the author’s tone is sharper, more harsh, than the elegiac sentiment of Visconti. The film is an aesthetic response to the politics of the Risorgimento. You can say that Visconti was a Marxist (he joined the Communist Party after WWII) but how much of one could he be having made this film? He loves those aristocrats, their clothes, their nobless oblige, and he loathes the upstart middle class. He was, of course, the scion of a hugely important Italian aristocratic clan. And in the end, the film is an adaptation, not a copy of the book – he chooses to emphasize the theme of the Prince dealing with his own mortality, as well as the end of his era, a more personal story. A fine film, a wee bit too long, and I think his talents were better suited for Senso.
The Leopard is often referred to as Italy’s “Gone With The Wind,” a comparison that is an insult to Visconti’s considerable talents and highly developed sensibility.