On their own feet they came, or On Shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilizations put to the sword.
William Butler Yeats, Lapis Lazuli
Way back when I was first reading Faulkner novels, I took time out to take a look at a performance of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard (I'll bet it was PBS). I was thunderstruck to discover they had the sane plot.
Think of it: decaying aristocracy, check. Energetic and amoral upstarts, check. An underclass whose job is to bear and to suffer under any regime, oh triple checkeroo. What I was discovering, of course, was one of the grand themes of the 19th Century novel: the tectonic plate-shift that moves the ground under our feet when one generation rises and another passes away. In a broad sense you can find it all the way back in Le Père Goriot. And it is a tribute to Balzac's imagination and originality that he knows how to end with young Rastignac as "he eyes that humming hive with a look that foretold its despoilation, as if he had already felt on his lips the sweetness of it honey, and said with superb defiance, 'It's war between us now!'" You can't imagine Flem Snopes in quite so theatrical a flourish but the sentiment is not all that different.
And once you grasp the point, you can see how the theme (with variations) underlies so many of the icons of late-19th or early-20th-Century fiction. It's certainly there in Buddenbrooks, and in its own way, in Proust's In Search of Lost Time. One could go on.
Still exploring the phenomenon of unearned wealth in Italy, Mr.and Mrs. Buce gave over the last couple of evenings to a late entry in the decay sweepstakes: Il Gattopardo, The Leopard, the account by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, only lightly fictionalized, of his grandfather, the last truly princely prince in Sicily.That would be the Visconti film version--the whole 205-minute original with battles and ballrooms and a country picnic, the one where Italian sentences come out of Burt Lancaster's mouth (he seems to have been the third, maybe the fourth, choice for the role).
Lampedusa's (and Visconti's) Prince is a hero, the sort of person to whom Burt Lancaster can do justice (amusing to think that when he executed this magisterial portrait, he was about the age that our children have reached now). One of the non-negligible lesser delights of watching the film is to recognize that they are almost certainly wrong: the Prince encountered in the eyes of an admiring grandchild was surely always so much more monumental than the real thing.
But that may be true of the history as well: perhaps it never did enjoy the grandeur and sweep that a great photographer can present on the wide screen. No matter: there is a certain melancholy solace in cherishing the memory of a past that probably never was.
I'd say film is probably proving more durable than anything else Visconti ever did; probably the same goes for Lancaster. It's a grand piece of spectacle that grandly prefigures not only the Sicily of The Godfather movies but the far more dignified world of Scorsese's Age of Innocence.
It's enlightening also to read David Thomson's half-hearted "appreciation" (in Have You Seen..., his "Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films"). Thomson can't quite resist liking the movie but he gives disapproval a game shot; mainly, so far as I can tell, because there aren't enough poor people in it. But I think the point is hiding in plain sight. We don't see poor people (except incidentally) because the Prince never saw poor people. The vastness of the narcissistic display among the favored was and is precisely why Sicily is such a mess. The Prince seems to sense this tragedy--perhaps a bit of an artistic stretch, but forgivable. Any but the crudest observer can see that the Prince's world will collapse because it must collapse, bloated and exhausted in its own success. The legacy of misfortune, sadly, will be somebody else's to bear.