Probably the most famous (or infamous, depending on your predilections) of Franco Zeffirelli’s literary adaptations, Romeo and Juliet is less interesting for its fidelity to Shakespeare (for reasons I have noted elsewhere) than what it suggests about what people want from a movie. Whatever one may think of it, R&J was a smash success, so it must have something going for it beyond the director’s chutzpah and the playwright’s reputation. No doubt some of that success resulted from using leads (Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey) as young as the characters, but that alone cannot explain the film’s appeal.
It is a cinch the appeal is not Zeffirelli’s film making. He might have been a theatrical genius, but Zeffirelli’s cinematic sense left a lot to be desired. Start with the uneven performances, with Hussey and Whiting, for example, looking wonderful only as long as they keep their mouths shut. Then there is the frantic hustle and bustle hiding the awkward amateurishness of the dramatic and narrative development. First-rate collaborators, like cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis, costume designer Danilo Donati and composer Nino Rota help, but borderline ineptitude always threatens to poke through.
So how did Zeffirelli capture the public’s imagination? Stanley Kauffmann put it well when he dismissed R&J as a “lush pageant.” A former scenic and production designer who cut his teeth as Luchino Visconti’s assistant, Zeffirelli produced luxurious cushions for his subjects, actors and audiences. But while Visconti’s films are sensuous, Zeffirelli’s are indulgent. The physical resources effectively became the subject of his films so that the viewer might loll about imaginatively like a pasha amidst the excess.
Consider Capulet’s party. Smoke swirls from countless torches. Every extra is stiff with velvet, satin and brocade. Food and wine flow freely and you can practically smell the dancers’ sweat. You may want to be there, but can be forgiven for forgetting why you are there or why everyone speaks in a funny kind of English. It builds to the moment when Romeo sees Juliet for the first time, as Zeffirelli pulls the rabbit of emotional recognition from his hat, grounding the sumptuosity in the perception of a character. He could barely stage a simple conversation without it threatening to fall apart, but Zeffirelli knew how to justify opulent spectacle.
Shakespeare does not exactly give Zeffirelli cover for his physical and sartorial indulgence, not least because of the inevitable carping about distortions to the text. But the cultural cachet and expense of Zeffirelli’s projects demand the benefit of the doubt in a way that other visual stylists working with less prestigious material—a Mario Bava, say, or a Sergio Leone—do not enjoy. There is at least a pretense of seriousness. Perhaps the best way to put it is that in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare is almost as important as the sets, costumes and lighting. Whether that is good or bad is up to you.