New Movies: Virtuoso in Verona

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If this Romeo and Juliet had been produced in 1956, there might have been no need for West Side Story the following year. "I wanted to bring the story to the attention of young people," says Director Franco Zeffirelli. "The story is of two urchins crushed by a stupid, banal quarrel with origins even the adults don't know. In love the young couple found an ideal — one they could die for — and youth today is hungry for ideals."

They are not hungry for Shakespeare, but Zeffireli's Romeo and Juliet will surely do much to reawaken a youthful identification with the aristocratic "star-crossed lovers" who have been so long in the limbo of Required Reading. This is one of the handful of classic Shakespearean films; it ranks lower than the Olivier Henry V, but only because of the substance, not the direction. With a charged, witty camera, Zeffirelli has managed to make the play alive and wholly contemporary without having had to transfer the action to a modern setting. Romeo and Juliet appear afresh as two incredibly articulate but believably, agonized teen-agers whose turf happens to be Quattrocento Verona. Too young to buck the Establishment—the Italian city-state with its machinery of epic feuds and rituals—they are finally undone by their passions. Death enlarges them when they abolish their parents' hate. They become, as Juliet's father puts it in the play's epilogue, "the poor sacrifices of our enmity."

Instead of simply duplicating the first-folio on film, Zeffirelli and his two co-writers, Franco Brusati and Masolino d'Amico, have blithely excised and elided speeches, transposed lines, eliminated characters. It is a dangerous game, rewriting Shakespeare, but Romeo and Juliet proves that it can be played and won. An even greater risk was to give the leading roles to a pair of youthful unknowns with virtually no acting experience: Juliet is a tremulous 16-year-old, Olivia Hussey; Romeo is Leonard Whiting, 17. Both look their parts and read their lines with a sensitivity far beyond the limitations of their age.

Equally impressive is John McEnery, 25, who plays Mercutio not as a witty, lascivious buffoon but as a possessed genius who has lounged too long with his inferiors. His delivery of the Queen Mab speech is a masterpiece of abstracted art. Teetering on madness, he spouts the words as if emerging from a lifelong nightmare. Zeffirelli, however, seems to have had better luck in casting youth than age. Pat Heywood's Nurse is a cockney caricature. And Milo O'Shea's Friar Laurence is a characterization lost somewhere in the middle distance, not deeply enough involved with the lovers nor sufficiently removed to act as a chorus of comment.

As in his The Taming of the Shrew, starring the Burtons, Zeffirelli dazzles the eye with a virtuoso use of color. His camera is a Renaissance palette. Courtiers stride by in the muted gold and crimsons of Piero della Francesca; cobblestones and horsemen diminish into the serene infinities of Uccello. Visually, Shakespeare has never been better realized—and seldom has he had so sensitive a collaborator.

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