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Review: Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Best known as Shakespeare’s great tragedy that supplies archetypes of young, innocent lovers wrecked by rash, inauspicious love and the interminable enmity of their feuding families, Romeo and Juliet, conceived at the dawn of the dramatist’s career, is in many ways a blatant departure from what a traditional tragedy is like. Throughout the play the comic, oftentimes farcical, elements are astoundingly profuse, insofar as the tragic coda seems lack of a crucial, consistent built-up to generate any eruptive climax. One is inclined to label the play a “tragicomedy,” but then isn’t every of Shakespeare’s play to a certain extent and in some respect a tragicomedy?

The fact that the comedic and the tragic are basically interchangeable in Shakespeare’s play testifies to how thoroughly the dramatist knows of the volatility of human nature: the laughter of one may easily be the tears of the other. Two contrasting moods may be divided only by a thin film, and a typical Shakespeare’s character is allowed to transition freely between them, even in the space of a few lines. This makes for highly entertaining dramas, but, some may say, it also yields inconsistent plotlines and absurd personages.

To truly grasp the essence of Shakespeare’s play one needs first to accept that reality is often weirder than we suppose, and that it cannot be governed by any set rules or logic. The same can be said of our psyche, which resembles a giant maze that defies solution and comprehension. Such complexity of the world and of the human is reduced to something deceptively simple through Shakespeare’s imagination, and to navigate wisely in this intricate kingdom that he conjures up the reader is advised to always follow the straight route, never be fooled by the ramification that stretches towards gathering shadows.

It is by “following the straight route” that one comes to realise that to extract truths from a fool one must first learn to think like a fool. And so, by the same token, we need to inhabit the young lovers’ minds to make sense of their irrationality when driven by a desire that seems senseless but impulsive and potent enough to precipitate disasters. This is not a romance that demands the nurturing of sentiments, but one that is electrified by speed. Speed is a prerogative for the young, who nurse no concern for the future and acknowledge no rules or God as guidance of their every action. The only authority they submit to is intuition, which allows them to live recklessly and to love shamelessly. When we were young, why would we be cautioned of acting on the spur of the moment or apprehensive of the critical consequence that attends our thoughtlessness? To die young is never a foreseeable outcome of what amounts to, but the prospect seems as beguiling as the ephemeral display of fireworks, flashing across the grim heaven with their splendour that causes lasting impression. Indeed, young lives are like fireworks.

One of the notable virtues of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet(1968) is its decision to cast actors close to the age of the protagonists to retain the youthful spirit with which the original play is suffused. Both actors are still in the first bloom of youth (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were 17 and 16 respectively when they played the roles), virtually greenhorns of the business and craft of acting that sees them sometimes plodding through or blurting out the rhetorical pronouncements like students dutifully reciting poetries they have little knowledge of. But this unknowing, guileless purity is exactly what gives the love story its distinct beauty, and its tragic conclusion an especial poignancy. Seeing the material realisation of the play tugs at our heartstrings even more so than that of reading it in print. The sensation is peculiar- we all were in some moments during our adolescence dogged imitators of full-blown adults, but never do we realise how profoundly sad it is, now that we’re removed from the experience, to witness two children trying and failing to affect comportments that are beyond their age.

This film is not a faithful rendition of Shakespeare’s play. The dialogues are severely pruned, and the Elizabethan language no more than a muted humming struggling to be made heard amidst the razzmatazz of modern music. Any humorous exchanges or anecdotes that assume such significant part of the play, but may be too arcane for the new generation, are weeded out from the script. All these lead to a result that may not be as welcoming as Zeffirelli envisaged when he blatantly finalised the changes. By separating the story from the language, or the plot from the context, is simply misreading and tampering with the art of Shakespeare- this is grave error for anyone who is bold enough to erase the role of the author and suppose he can outsmart the genius.

Nevertheless my verdict still qualifies the picture a flawed masterpiece. And this has much to do with Nino Rota’s beautifully elegiac soundtrack, which consists largely of a G minor ballad that weaves neatly through the merriment of the ball scene to the mournfulness of the death sequence. Also worth noting is Pasqualino De Santis’s deft camerawork, which intersperses the lushness of artificial colours with the earthiness of Verona’s natural landscape. This north Italian city is characterised by its mercurial nature and crowdedness; a place where privacy is hard to come by. The cinematographer retains such urban trait by making the setting almost scenic. There is a scene where Juliet anxiously eludes from whatever is pursuing her. Suddenly, a shaft of light darts towards her, to which she responds with a quick wary glance. For once our complicity of the young lovers’ secrets and assignations feels wrong and unnerving.


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