Vol. 45 No. 3 · 2 February 2023
At the Movies

Zeffirelli’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Michael Wood

1314 words

Franco Zeffirelli​ said of his 1968 film Romeo and Juliet, now about to appear in a digital restoration by the Criterion Collection, that he wanted it to tell ‘a real story in a plausible medieval city’. A casual remark, no doubt, but one that invites interpretations or qualifications. A real story is not the same as a realistic story, the characters and costumes look a little late for the Middle Ages, and the city is more than plausible, since much of the film was shot on location in Italy.

The movie wears well, and is certainly better than I remembered, but time has also made it a different film, in certain ways closer to Shakespeare than it used to be or was probably meant to be. Or closer to a certain Shakespeare, the one who loves terrible jokes and cheerfully allows them to accompany violence and distress. When Romeo and Juliet was first published, in 1597, some two or three years after it was written, it was described as ‘an excellent conceited tragedy’ – where ‘conceited’ means full of fantastic thoughts and expressions, but could easily apply to most of the characters, perhaps all of them except the hero and heroine. The second publication, in 1599, had the title The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Zeffirelli’s film shows us that those two adjectives can get along with each other improbably well.

The opening and closing of the film are more comfortable than anything in it. We hear the uncredited voice of Laurence Olivier speaking the first words of the play’s chorus, telling us about star-crossed lovers and what is going to happen, and then at the end he borrows the words of the Prince of Verona. Olivier’s delivery isn’t overdramatic but it signals some sort of cultural establishment, as if intended to frame a sober production of a classic rather than, say, a version of West Side Story, with plausible streets full of quarrelling gangs. There are certain slippages in the language. The prologue suggests that the lovers ‘do with their death bury their parents’ strife’, whereas the film’s implication is that nothing is buried here except two bodies. And at the end of the play the Prince says of ‘the glooming peace’ they have achieved that ‘Some shall be pardoned, and some punishèd.’ In the film Robert Stephens as the Prince convincingly says: ‘All are punishèd.’ Justice is not what’s to come: it is what they are miserably living with.

The streets of the city are very busy in the film, and the walls and piazzas and churches seem to enjoy their movie life. In an essay on Zeffirelli, Ramona Wray writes of ‘giddy, delirious camera work’. The gangs on the streets are doubly dressed in fancy clothes, once because this is Shakespeare and once because they treat life itself as a noisy party. Unless we think they are characters from Renaissance paintings who have escaped their frames in order to have a good time. There is some atmospheric music in the soundtrack by Nino Rota, and we wonder for a while if the movie isn’t going to include a few songs, and so sound as well as look like West Side Story. Just when we have decided this is not where we’re going, the film pauses in the middle of a bash at the Capulet house, and a character does sing a song. Many will recognise the tune: the song became known as ‘A Time for Us’, and was recorded for orchestra by Henry Mancini and later sung by Shirley Bassey, Andy Williams and many others. Time seems to be running backwards for us: the film is haunted by later echoes of what it started. I don’t know where this leaves us, but it’s clear that Rota’s music, throughout the film, is doing a lot of the work of Shakespeare’s puns and rhymes.

The party is the place where Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love. Neither knows who the other is, and each is shaken by the news that the other belongs to an enemy family. The balcony scene follows and is visually very inventive. Juliet runs up and down her terrace, Romeo dangles from a tree, and they say their too familiar lines without excessive operatic inflation.

A recurring complaint at the time of the film’s first appearance concerned the shortage of words – only something like a third of Shakespeare’s text made it into the soundtrack. This objection now seems like a rather stodgy piety, and perhaps would have seemed so then if we had thought more about film. Such a view underestimates how much a well-filmed face or gesture can say, not recognising that it may in fact say exactly what the words were saying, and say it better. A great example of this possibility is Visconti’s sustained reading of Dirk Bogarde’s face in Death in Venice, but there are some good moments in Romeo and Juliet too. I’m thinking especially of the set-up towards the end of the film, when Romeo has killed Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (Michael York). He is already (secretly) married to Juliet, and will now be banned from Verona for his misdeed. Her parents, meanwhile, are proceeding with their plan to marry her to Count Paris, and even her nurse recommends that she go along with that plan, because Romeo won’t be coming back and it’s the sensible thing to do. Juliet scarcely speaks during this sequence, but there is a moment when we get long close-ups of her face as the others talk. Could she be desperate enough to cave in to common sense? The face doesn’t answer this or any other question immediately. It’s just frozen, scared. Then we realise that its immobility represents a form of determination, a mind made up. We were misreading its calm. She was never going to settle for the squalid compromise. There is of course an angry irony in her saying to her nurse: ‘Thou hast comforted me marvellous much.’ But there is that and more in her face.

Another advantage of film is that the photographed actors are real even if their characters are fictive – just as the pictured city walls exist in real cities. Zeffirelli’s employment of this element is wonderfully effective in the late scene in a vault, where Juliet is supposed to be dead. She will return to consciousness soon. Romeo doesn’t know this – he didn’t get the memo that was supposed to inform him of Friar Laurence’s cunning plot. Juliet would get out of her marriage to Paris because she looked dead, Romeo would meet up with her and take her away.

The extravagant visual game is already present in Shakespeare, but is richly enhanced by the fact that we are seeing what Romeo sees. He doesn’t doubt for a moment that Juliet is dead, but just can’t get over how she looks. ‘Death … hath had no power yet upon thy beauty,’ he says, and

Ah, dear Juliet,
Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?

It’s as if he’s had a glimpse of how Gothic novels work or why lamentable plights make such good literature. And of course we too get the same glimpse across changing lines of sight. We see the real actress pretending to be drugged but looking dead. We know she is not dead in the story, but we also know why Romeo is deceived. Like so many good movies this one is inviting us to think about what it means to see, and what else we may have to do to understand our world.

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Vol. 45 No. 5 · 2 March 2023

Michael Wood, writing about Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, cites Romeo’s reaction on seeing Juliet’s apparently dead body (LRB, 2 February):

Shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in the dark to be his paramour?

Wood compares the scene to Gothic novels, but the more appropriate reference is to the Renaissance topos of ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’. As Karl Guthke pointed out in The Gender of Death (1999), while Death is feminine in other languages, its masculine gender in German allowed artists to imagine the ‘boneman’ as bridegroom, seducer, rapist.

In Dürer’s engraving The Ravisher (c.1495), Death pulls the struggling woman towards his lap, her dress stretching tautly to show her vulnerability. In that engraving Death has a human body, but a pen-and-ink sketch by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, Death and the Maiden (1517), shows his gaunt body turning into a skeleton, with pieces of skin and clothes still stuck to it, forcing his hand up her dress as she tries to prevent him. Hans Sebald Beham’s engraving Death and the Lascivious Couple (1529) shows Death with a human body topped with a skull, standing behind a naked couple. The woman has one hand in the man’s hair, the other on his flaccid penis; Death already has an erection. John Astington has suggested that Death, aroused by the couple’s lascivious embrace, ‘is about to claim them both’, while pointing out a connection with Romeo and Juliet. When the Nurse wishes Mercutio ‘good morning’ he corrects her, ‘for the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon’. The vigorous 16th-century trade in prints and engravings undoubtedly included London.

Brian Vickers
London NW6

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