16 June 2000 | tedg
Poetry to Visual Affect
This is not Shakespeare's best play, but it has his best poetry; that's because the play is ABOUT language, about the difference between what something is and the language used to describe it. So among the plays, this may be one of the hardest to film. But alas it suffers from another blessing which is also a curse: the story itself is so powerful that one can build any sort of film or play or whatever around it and have it be likely to work. Thus, we often lose the language.
Zefrelli made his own choices in the earlier film; these were relatively conventional. While it cut some valuable language, sacrificed to the gods of contemporary patience, it is by far the better version. But here we have some interesting choices.
First the setting. Italians to Shakespeare's England were a comical people, and his setting of the play there would have encouraged the audience to bring heavy stereotypes to the drama. Latins in his day were considered: Foppish: Quick to violence (a stereotype that has been inherited by blacks today, but to Londoners, Italians were nearly Africans): Incredibly proud especially as regards slights to masculinity: Obsessed with weapons.
Today, we roll those up under the relatively crude notion of stupid Latin macho. In this film, the director has exaggerated the Latin macho ethic to have the same effect 16th century Londoners would get. It works because these stereotypes are powerful memes which attract many hosts which perpetuate their underlying truth. Baz adds the additional dimension of the people being captured by the superstitious underbelly of the Church.
He deliberately straddles the border between apparent truth and satire. These Latins are superficial visually and not verbally. So here is the solution to the problem on how to make a film (which is primarily a visual medium) out of a play that leverages poetic language. The solution is to convert all the metaphors from language to vision. Hence the much-noted lack of poetry. I imagine Baz directing the players to not worry so much about the poetry.
Both Romeo and Juliet are incapable of performing the poetry anyway: they are children learning on the job. And what acting skill they have from film is all in the face, not the tongue. They are pretty enough though.
I like this film for its boldness. Some of the experiment works since we get the message of the difference between what we see and what is true. This is why Juliet has to see a LIVE Romeo at the end. Living under water is used to good effect. But in the real play, there are so many and such subtle explorations of the theme, and these are scoured away here for a few broad effects. The real message, which comes through loud and clear if you know the play (or even Zefrelli's film) is not the distance between the reality of events and the language, but the reality of the richness of the real play and this film. Equally vast. Equally powerful statement. So we have a playhouse with the back part blasted out to the sea.
As a separate matter, the play has three anchors: Mercutio, the Friar and the Nurse. These are handled interestingly here.
The Friar is an alchemical master hiding under the cloak of the Church. The play equates the magic of language with the magic of potions, equally deadly. The congruence is lost in this film, but Baz definitely gets the magic part as well as the superfluous ritual of the church. This friar is a terrific, memorable performance of someone who believes he can defeat nature. Serves as an anchor as intended.
The Nurse is the true domestic, raw nature, full of uncompromised loyalty but ultimately compromised. Her character is lost here. We NEED to know about the dead sister and why the nurse turns on Juliet in order to save her life. Baz fails here, and so provides no center. For Shakespeare, she's the white space on the palette.
Mercutio in the play is a emotionally engaged visionary mystic. We understand that Romeo and Mercutio studied magic (`philosophy') abroad together much as Hamlet and Horatio had. The dream they shared the night before is the axis of the whole action: rather like the magic of the witches in Macbeth. Baz gets this as well: Modern magic is what? Drugs. So Hamlet is given a psychotropic by Mercutio before going to the party. Works for me, because it allows everything to be visually blasted and inexorably tragic. The whole thing after the party is a trip, see? It is why they can meet, become entranced and arrange marriage after an hour or two. (Remember that until this point Romeo is hopelessly smitten by Roseline.)
Anyone who wrestles with problems of filming the Bard and comes out alive deserves my respect. This is a weird interpretation, but that's the point.