Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Romeo and Juliet

I just watched Zeffirelli's dazzling film of Romeo and Juliet. My impressions for the moment are from that version of the play, and no other. I have no idea of how the script compares to the original play.

Indeed I am dazzled by the sets, the costumes, and the richness of the chosen music. I love the color and bustle of the market place where the film's first scenes take place, the stark stone buildings of the medieval locations, the clang of swords in play, the howls of the mob-like Montague and Capulet followers, the youth and beauty of the actors, and the elaborate balcony with trees and night-time lighting. I felt that they mesh wonderfully with the Shakespearean poetry that elevates the emotions of gang-like teenage rage and hopeless, tragic love. The first half of the film is full of such visual dramatization.

"A plague on both your houses," ends the scene where both Tybalt and Mercutio lie dead. And both houses are clearly represented by the color-coded costumes, which I assume were also in the play in Shakespeare's time, delineating the two irrational factions.

When Romeo and Juliet -- now married -- wake up after their brief night together, she tries to pretend that she hears a nightingale; Romeo knows that they hear the morning sound of a lark. Thus she hopes that the night is still lasting, morning has not yet broken. The poetry of this interchange told everything for the audience of a stage play. But I find the introduction of actual bird songs to add to the beauty. (Some purist might dispute my impression.)

The film's Friar Lawrence, in a scene in his "cell," explains the elixir that will put Juliet into a death-like sleep. Meanwhile he stands behind a high laboratory set up of beakers, retorts, and other achemists' equipment. Before he starts, he lights a thick candle; when he is done, he blows it out. As he speaks his lines, he pours drops from a series of vessels into a tiny vial to give to wide-eyed Juliet. This visual drama underscores the impact of what he's saying.

Similarly, during Juliet's entombment, we see Baltazaar, Romeo's faithful servant, observing what has happened. Then we see Baltazaar mount a swift horse and gallop past Friar Lawrence's envoy. We know the envoy, riding a slow donkey, is bearing the Friar's letter that should have warned Romeo that she is not really dead. So the words of Shakespeare's play are made visible. Finally we reach the painful scene within the tomb where the two lovers die: the torch-lit scene is surely melodramatic, but it works. Should I like it? I don't know. Do I like it? Yes.

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