‘Leo The Last’ is a supremely enigmatic film. Its message is, ultimately, fairly modest, and you get the feeling that you may be missing some of the pieces but its striking visuals and oblique narrative linger in your mind for a long while afterwards.
Directed by the great John Boorman, it stars a world weary, baggy looking Marcello Mastroianni as Leo, the deposed ruler of an unnamed European country. Exiled to London, he and his retinue move into a mansion at the head of a grimy, grey street with a large black immigrant population. The street was real, scheduled for demolition, and was painted grey to fit in with the film’s strict black – grey - white colour scheme – it looks amazing, adding immeasurably to the fantastic realism of the film.
Leo’s father was a great warrior and national hero and, like many sons of great men, Leo isn’t required have much personality of his own, only to provide a facsimile of his dead Dad. He is withdrawn and disconnected from the rest of the world, and is more interested in birds than people.
His extensive entourage (including Billie Whitelaw as his cold eyed fiancée, bonkers Graham Crowden as his bonkers solicitor, and the marvellous Vladek Sheybal as his sinister, clever aide) are all eager to keep him docile, distracted and busy, so he is sent to a dinner party where the upper classes devour their dinner like animals, and to a strange hydrotherapy class where a load of fat, old people jiggle around in the water while chanting. (If you’ve ever wondered what an ample elderly nude bosom looks like unfettered and unrestrained underwater, then this is the film for you. If you’ve ever wanted to see what an ample elderly nude bosom looks like unfettered and unrestrained underwater, then you haven’t long to wait.)
Out in the grimy, grey street, however, real life (and death) is taking place among the black families struggling to survive, beset by rent increases, predatory bullies and rapists and tussles with the law. Leo graduates from watching them through a telescope to starting to move amongst them, but always as an observer, a stranger. He takes an interest in a particular family headed up by the young, charismatic Roscoe, and, when Roscoe is arrested, and Leo realises that the family are starving, he pays for a huge amount of groceries to be sent to them anonymously. Unfortunately, the elderly father, having gorged himself, has a heart attack and dies. In order to support the family, daughter Salambo turns to prostitution, so Leo ‘buys’ her and installs her in his house, not for sex, but for safety.
When Leo finds out that he owns every building in the street and that his prosperity is based on his tenants misery, he joins with Roscoe and Salambo and the rest of the tenants to fight against his own vested interests and defeat the petit bourgeoisie fanatically committed to preserving their slice of the pie.
In the (literally) explosive end, Roscoe says ‘well, you didn’t change the world’. ‘No’ Leo says ‘but we changed our street’. Not a bad start.
A really thoughtful, singular, artistic piece of work with good performances and great music (from Ram Jam Holder), I'd recommend 'Leo The Last' to any one able to get hold of a copy. If you happen to represent 'The Man' and you are reading this, UK DVD and Blu-Ray releases are long overdue, so please do something about it. I don't suppose you will, though, representing 'The Man' and all. Here's a clip.