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
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