Romeo and Juliet

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4 stars out of five
by S. James Wegg
Publish Date: January 15, 2003
Reviewed at the 2003 Palm Springs International Film Festival
Head to head with two masters

Franco Zeffirelli's second major film begins with a scene of violence between the Capulets and Montagues that even now seems more appropriately footage for Caligula than Shakespeare's timeless love story. It's as if the emerging director had discovered the film industry's cookie jar and indulged himself more from an experimental than artistic viewpoint. The early (and only) shots of bare-chested onlookers are equally intriguing but seem out of place.

Nonetheless, from that point on the story unfolds with Zeffirelli's customary style and metaphoric imagery, spectacularly assisted by the unerring eye of cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis. For, in this Romeo and Juliet, holding hands and caressing heads become as integral as the text.

Leonard Whiting as Romeo brings his compelling good looks (arguably the most tasteful celebration of male buttocks ever filmed, following the consummation night with his doomed lover) and just-right touch of youthful confusion to the role. In his first big scene, he cradles best-friend Marcutio's (John McEnery adroitly provides the punning madness) head with tenderness and affection that never slips into awkward sub-text that would arise if two North American men lingered in such a trusting pose.

While just 15, Olivia Hussey's Juliet seems too buxom by half (push-up bras withstanding), although she teases us as much as the camera until her breasts do momentarily fill the screen in a sequence of will-she?/won't-she? show-and-tell that has its male equivalent with Malcolm McDowell's pride artfully uncovered in Kubrick's contemporary A Clockwork Orange. (The men's tasselled jocks are also similar to their plastic counterparts which protect Alex and his droogs in the 1972 Kubrick classic.)

Of course Nino Rota's score and title song nearly exceed the film's popularity, but the little wisp of a mostly in-tune voice that delivers it at the masque seems more effeminate than the full-blooded string version later in the score.

The discreet tolling of the Church bells adroitly underscores the many deaths. The camera's numerous returns to the magnificent Stations of the Cross in the nave (particularly when the sight of it determines the chemist-priest—;brilliantly portrayed by Milo O'Shea—to go ahead with the controversial marriage, hoping that uniting the forever-warring families with God's blessing will end the feud) adds silent motivation to the sonic depth. Nonetheless, the excessive wailing of the ill-fated couple as they suffer all manner of losses and set-backs throughout the film made me want to turn them over my knee and "give you something to cry about."

But everything hinges on the visual realizations of death. Tybalt's—in a fight scene that ranks with the best ever—falls to the ground arms stretched out in crucifix manner, allowing his nipple and nail-like fatal wound to complete the metaphor-imagery used to similar effect by Canada's Guy Maddin (Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary; cross-reference below).

The final scene in the crypt—after Juliet plunges the symbolic dagger home to re-join her husband and plummets to the ground—we are treated to the unforgettable image of the lovers' heads layered diagonally: the tragic result of pointless bickering mutely laid bare.

In the coda, the young bodies area carried side by side. Here—for the first time when sharing the screen— they are unable to connect in any manner. But Zeffirelli isn't quite done: during the closing credits two young men—one from each house—turn their wretched despair into warm embrace. Has something finally been learned? JWR

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October 20, 2004

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don't quit your day job
poser
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