Unheralded during his lifetime, Sicilian aristo Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa now resides in the pantheon of Italian novelists; his reputation spread further after Luchino Visconti brought his 1958 posthumous masterpiece, “The Leopard,” to the screen in 1963. In “The Prince’s Manuscript,” helmer Roberto Ando views this key literary figure through his relationship to two young proteges, stressing a “Leopard”-like clash between old nobility and new bourgeoisie. Aided by a winning cast, this Giuseppe and Francesco Tornatore production is a delicately calibrated work filled with resonant moments, but possibly too highbrow to go far beyond festivals, serious pubcasters and Visconti cult followers.
In ’50s Palermo, middle-class Marco Pace (Paolo Briguglia), a brilliant but withdrawn university student and aspiring writer, gets himself introduced to Prince Tomasi di Lampedusa, roundly portrayed by French thesp Michel Bouquet as culture and snobbishness personified. To Marco’s surprise, the prince offers to give him private lit lessons.
Their prickly encounters across an antique desk in a luxuriously appointed library — where they can hear the prince’s psychiatrist wife (Jeanne Moreau) at work in the next room with her patients — take place in a refined world apart. Marco painfully mistakes the prince’s narcissistic intellectual discussions for paternal interest.
He is crushed when the childless prince chooses to adopt a well-off, golden-boy relative, Guido Lanza (Giorgio Lupano), as his heir. (Character is the same Guido Lanza Tomasi who is Italy’s current cultural attache in the U.S. and whose book on the writer is one of the film’s main sources.)
Story is so focused on Marco and Guido’s silent rivalry for the prince’s attention that the fact that Tomasi di Lampedusa is writing “The Leopard” is thrown in almost casually. He allows Marco to type the manuscript from his dictation, until the boy, sensing the prince’s emotional distance, suddenly quits.
Film’s most fascinating side, however, is not literary but stems from the class antagonism between Marco and the prince, the first maintaining that “literature has changed my life” and the second intoning, from the height of his nobility, that “literature can’t change what we are.” Most viewers will side with Marco, naturally.
Young Briguglia (who turns into a neurotic Laurent Terzieff in later life) vividly conveys the pride and fragility that undermine Marco’s inborn literary talent. With the well-cast Lupano, he sketches in the stiff-dressed ’50s in Palermo’s upper-class circles, where culture was taken seriously, sex was much freer than one would have thought, and violence (a friend is kidnapped by the Mafia) lurked around the corner.
Script is weighed down by its frequent returning to a current-day framing story in which the timeworn Marco and Guido (played by Massimo de Francovich, hardly a look-alike for Lupano) play a forced and unconvincing cat-and-mouse game. Veteran camera operator Enrico Lucidi makes his noteworthy debut as a d.p. with muted, respectful lighting that is beautiful throughout. Marco Betta’s music score weaves its way around a predictable background of Wagner, Chopin and Franck.