Franco Zeffirelli’s passing last June at 96 was rightly marked… is rightly marked with a long list of accolades for his iconic contributions to the theatre (opera in particular), film and TV. Like millions, I have a soft spot for his lavish adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.
Filming Shakespeare’s plays is the ultimate challenge for any film director bent on adapting literary texts to the silver screen. For s/he must contend with the Bard’s unparalleled genius in probing the heights and mire of humanity. And more – since the incredible intensity and intricacy of Shakespeare’s poetic drama fires the imagination even more than it assuages the desire for a glimpse of ever-elusive truth.
The difficulties inherent in any film adaptation are consequently compounded by how to tap and reproduce the alchemy of Shakespeare’s words into a predominantly visual medium. Herein lies the crux of filming Shakespeare. To capture the spirit of the original drama and to remain faithful to its major themes and major characters, the filmmaker must forge a personal take on the action and transform the aural to the visual through Shakespeare’s vision. As a result, the dramatic essence and energy of the film must belong both to the filmmaker and to Shakespeare.
There is no definitive style with which to transubstantiate stage to screen. Yet Zeffirelli’s naturalistic Romeo and Juliet (1968) comes close to perfection. His success is achieved by realising the vital differences between theatre and cinema and that film is a hybrid art form. Apart from spending months scouring Italy for authentic early Renaissance locations, he was the first director to choose the teenage Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey to play the archetypal star-crossed lovers fully transmitting the pity of their tragic ending.
Zeffirelli’s acclaimed naturalistic mode and operatic quality, however, need qualification.
For his geo-historic realism is no mere decorative background glorifying 15th century Verona. It provides an intensifying device akin to Shakespeare’s leitmotifs. It encapsulates the clash of life and death, light and darkness, womb and tomb, the clash of generations within and without the play.
The defiance of the young lovers’ love, scorning the vapidity of social prestige, also resonates with the 1968 student uprisings. Even more significantly, the undeniable exuberance, the synthesis of evocative light, colour, music, and texture are hinged upon Zeffirelli’s spatial strategy which projects the frenzy of this essentially carpe diem love tragedy.
The operatic feel is not due to declamatory acting or simplistic musical swell, but to the ensemble ethos. The clever use of music expresses the inexpressible at pivotal moments. These moments include Romeo’s joy after the balcony scene, the poignant parting on the wedding night, the pity of Friar John’s aborted journey to Mantua and the marriage/death scenes. Indeed, the marriage hearse theme is underlined by repeating the Ave maris stella hymn during the wedding sequence and Juliet’s feigned funeral sequence. The echoes of this hymn serve as a musical analogy to Juliet’s ominous words:
Come, cords, come Nurse, I’ll to my wedding bed,
And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead.
The image of death as bridegroom is therefore doubly emphasised since music and chant have always been associated with death. The repetition of the Ave maris stella hymn also connects with Romeo’s anguished weeping in the final tomb sequence.
Though Zeffirelli had staged Romeo and Juliet at the Old Vic in 1960, he refrains from filming a staged play without forfeiting his theatrical experience. He steers clear from the architectonic conditioning of a theatre and fully exploits the 3-d reality emanating from a flat surface. This puts the décor and actor at par invading the viewer with their mutual dramatic flow.
The film medium demands an interplay of fast-moving and varied camerawork. The ensuing linear and circular sweeps intensified by the synthesis of light, colour, and music are inspired, not bound, by the text. This is particularly evident in the Capulet Ball sequence, which reiterates and magnifies the circle motif permeating the film. The dance is choreographed as a symbolic feud with the young lovers meeting on the fringe to underline their doomed isolation.
This also hints at the death of Mercutio and Tybalt away from the centre of the square. The shifting concentric circles hark back to the burning sun rising at the beginning of the film and more importantly link up with the circles embedded in the marble church floor where Romeo and Juliet get married.
The extrapolated Morisca in particular enacts the duel and dance of seduction, the frenzied passion of love and hate: ‘My only sprung from my only hate.’ Close-ups of Juliet, Romeo, the Nurse, Lady Capulet, Lord Capulet, Tybalt and the same sequence in reverse punctuate the dizzying, escalating crescendo. The close-ups intimate the active role, which the Capulets play in goading the inevitable love-tragedy. But they also project the snapped thread of life of the young generation and the rigor mortis of the petrified old one.
This dance of love is also a danse macabre adumbrating the typically Shakespearean oxymoronic and antithetical imagery of the play. The irony of the parallel rituals of love and hate are visually linked through the circle motif that also dominates and patterns the subsequent love and duel scenes.
Above all, the circle motif heightens the relentless pace of time. The star-crossed lovers fall victim to their passion and ill-fortune. The circles symbolise predestination as well as man-made bonds. Shakespeare interweaves valid arguments for both fate and free will. But the ultimate horror is not irresolution, but the fact that both notions are tainted with mortality. This has Zeffirelli expertly omitting the parents’ promise to immortalise the lovers in gold statues while bathing the film in a golden soft focus.
So, the manipulation of the circle motif projects the crucial importance of time in the play. The Morisca’s frenzied rhythm embodies the carpe diem essence which resonates in Juliet’s ‘Gallop apace your fiery-footed steeds’ speech, thus vindicating its textual omission. The lovers’ first physical contact is punctuated with Nino Rota’s psuedo but convincing madrigal cadence. Romeo and Juliet’s very first kiss is heightened by the dying lyrics of ‘What is Youth’ harping on the transience of love and life.
This ballad which became a hit is, in fact, an evocation of the carpe diem theme of the play. So, it is no coincidence that the lovers rush into each other’s embrace across the circular patters embedded in the church floor, because they are embracing their untimely death. It is also worth noting that Zeffirelli, unlike Shakespeare, has Romeo run after Tybalt to avenge Mercutio’s murder; so that he is not simply ‘Fortune’s fool’.
But it is the manipulation of the piazza sequences that enables Zeffirelli to project the ripple effect of ‘this pernicious feud’. As Anthony Davies rightly says in Filming Shakespeare’s Plays, (1988,1994), the centrifugal spread in the film is in perfect sync with the centrifugal essence of the cinematic image. But at no time does Zeffirelli forget the piazza’s quintessentially theatrical spatial dynamics. The piazza is the melting point of the cash nexus and aristocratic pretension – the contagion of which has not yet marred the young lovers. This is precisely why the purity and naiveté of their love is so subversive and ultimately untenable by society and adulthood. Once again Zeffirelli gains in textual omissions. The monosyllabic ‘Go’ and a gesture of dismissal is enough to evoke Juliet’s revulsion at the Nurse’s mercantile mind.
Zeffirelli beautifully captures the oppressive atmosphere of the sun-baked piazza, which is ripe for bawdry and blood. It provides the perfect setting for the posturing bravado and bloodied hands of both houses. The opposing fruit and vegetable stalls that appear in the opening shots immediately introduce their brimming antagonism. They also anticipate the red/yellow and blue/green livery of the respective Capulet and Montague servants who appear immediately after. Significantly, blue and red foreshadow Juliet’s purple wedding gown that is really her shroud.
The piazza is also the ideal setting for the tragi-comic elements of the play. Zeffirelli captures the irony of Shakespeare’s oxymoronic imagery evident in the lovers’ speeches. Indeed, Zeffirelli projects how Shakespeare uses comedy to intensify rather that dissipate tragedy. This explains why Mercutio’s bawdry is rightly foregrounded because it intensifies the impending doom. The piazza is the ultimate stage for Mercutio and Tybalt’s compulsive histrionic nature. They must live and die in the public eye. Zeffirelli celebrates this in the palpable tension of the duel scenes.
Bathed in the gloomy dawn and reeking of blood, the piazza is also the final setting for the tragic wanton waste of the dead lovers. Zeffirelli omits Paris’ murder and has Lady Montague remain alive because he wants to heighten the catharsis of Juliet’s torrential pain and tears.
The play extols Juliet through her magnificent speeches and moreover, by never allowing Romeo to discover her feigned death. Zeffirelli ingeniously introduces Juliet in a bejeweled red velvet dress rather than in a conventionally pure white one, immediately impinging the irresistible but dangerous sensuousness of:
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.
The uncanny use of space, light, colour, and music gains through Zeffirelli’s realisation that the play belongs to Juliet. Lingering over the castellated walls of Verona towering above the empty square, the final shots signify that the feud – not conflict – is dead. The voice-over eclipses everything including the perfectly symmetrical line-up of the reconciled families. Though Zeffirelli snips the epilogue, he does not omit “for never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.“
Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet turned 50 last year. Its beauty is dateless.
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This article appeared in The Times on June 18, 2019.