He accepted the crown, she wept. Poor reluctant prince, poor tortured mother. And what of the kingdom that the prince so unwillingly agreed to govern?
Two filmmakers—both Italian, by coincidence—have offered different perspectives on the inescapable business of dynastic succession and generational change. One was a member of his country’s feudal elite, so he spoke from first-hand experience. Luchino Visconti’s 1963 epic The Leopard marks the twilight of the aristocracy and the rise of democracy in nineteenth-century Italy. Based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel of the same name, The Leopard is not just one of Visconti’s personal best, but also one of the most remarkable films to be made in colour.
American actor Burt Lancaster’s nobleman from Salina suffers quietly and proudly as his stately world dissolves into shambles. Just beyond the boundaries of his sprawling estate, red shirt-clad revolutionaries and common folk clamour to build a new Italy, while inside his ballroom, gowns and tuxedos encircle each other in the first of the last banquets. The Leopard is laden with visual metaphors, some of them to do with the winds of change and disquiet. As the family members attend a church service, their clothes get gradually coated with dust from the gust outside, making them look like corpses ready to be buried and forgotten.
Third-generation Italian-American filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola’s most well-known movie is about another reluctant inheritor of a new order, but this one eschews lament and instead opts for an often ruthless sense of purpose. There’s no avoiding the influence of Coppola’s interpretation of Mario Puzo’s novel on popular culture---whether it’s family or business or politics or organised religion, anything involving authority and power keeps getting referred back to the movie (by which we mean parts one and two). Meanwhile, consider the curious case of Michael Corleone, who, upon being compelled to inherit his father’s slice of the New York Mafia pie, goes on to make a meal of it. Saddled with decadent siblings, a conscientious wife and a yearning for respectability, Michael tries to ignore his roots and reinvent himself over and over again. The tragedy of The Godfather is that Michal, unlike his father, proves incapable of making the world an offer it can’t refuse.
Michael Corleone directly inspired the character of Faisal Khan, played brilliantly by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, in Anurag Kashyap’s two-part Gangs of Wasseypur, but there are significant differences. Michael’s hidebound sense of duty never abandons him even when he is staring into a moral abyss, while Faisal only wants to watch movies, smoke pot and cuddle up with his equally cine-mad sweetheart. It’s a pity that Faisal is portrayed more as a comic villain rather than a tragic hero--- his should-I-stay-or-should-I-go attitude towards stepping into his father’s shoes resonates beyond the scope of the fictional film, into business, the media and politics.
This weekly series, which appears on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.