Home Video Hovel: Romeo and Juliet, by Rudie Obias
Obviously, just about everyone knows the story of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet—two young star-crossed lovers from warring families in Verona, Italy. This is something everyone had to read in high school for English literature, as well as countless movie and TV adaptations, including West Side Story (one version from Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, as well as another from Steven Spielberg) and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann. There’s even a romantic comedy spin off from director Karen Maine titled Rosaline on Hulu. The Romeo and Juliet entertainment industrial complex is alive and well, and going strong into the 21st century.
And then there’s Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. This is the go-to movie for nearly every high school English teacher to show to the class (rolled into the classroom on a cart and then either played on video cassette or DVD) after reading the William Shakespeare original (there’s nothing like watching a 138-minute movie in five 30-minute chunks throughout the school week). There’s a reason why English teachers pop this movie in to show their students, it’s a Goddamn masterpiece of pop cinema.
The Criterion Collection just added this film to their boutique home video distribution label with an immaculate 4K restoration, uncompressed audio, and a small handful of bonus materials. In fact, the most disappointing thing about this home release is the small amount of features. All you get is an excerpt from the documentary Franco Zeffirelli: Directing from Life, two interviews with Olivia Hussey, who plays Juliet Capulet, and Leonard Whiting, who plays Romeo Montague, with about 50 years separating each interview, theatrical trailer, and a film essay from Ramona Wray—which is excellent. Aside from that, you really just get the movie, which is amazing!
The 1968 film adaptation is very faithful to the original, in both story and language. It’s not a realistic telling of the classic story by any means, but rather Zeffirelli just brings Romeo and Juliet to life. It has a pulse and nearly every moment is full of big, over-the-top energy and vitality. It’s no doubt exciting!
Nearly everything is super heightened, which lends itself to the passion the two teenaged star-crossed lovers have for each other and pure hatred the two families have for each other. It’s necessary to fully buy-in to the world and the character’s actions, which might go over the heads of someone who is reading the material instead of watching and experiencing it—especially at the large scale and eye-popping colors in which Zeffirelli paints the frame.
And considering the time it was released, it’s easy to see why Romeo and Juliet fits in so well with the counterculture era of the late 1960s. There’s elements of subversion, violence, and sex that you’d see in other envelope-pushing movies from that time, such as Barbarella, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Rosemary’s Baby, and others. Just the sheer amount of bloody brawls, stylish swordplay, and raging romance, would make even the most-square square come to life.