Shakespeare turns 400 this year and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) celebrated his birthday with a feast of Shakespeare inspired films from his vast collection of plays and sonnets.
I had the delightful yet sorrowful pleasure to submerse myself in Franco Zeffireili’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (1968). This is the bard’s most popular tragic-romantic play of love and fate. Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona and begins as a playful comedy, however the long standing feud between the Montague and Capulet families soon disrupts the city of Verona and causes tragic results for the star crossed lovers.
A tale of revenge, love, and secret marriage force the young lovers to grow up quickly as fate causes their death in despair. Zeffirelli was determined to cast his Romeo and Juliet of similar age. He engaged in an international search and it deservedly paid off. Oliver Hussey (16) nabbed the role of Juliet and Lawrence Whiting (17) took to the screen as Romeo – the two teenagers were both unknown actors and embraced their roles as the star-crossed lovers with sheer and simple elegance.
Zeffirelli reflects his desire to exude innocence yet torment against the backdrop of the couple’s feuding families. Hussey’s Juliet oozes sophisticated sexual innocence and beauty, while Whiting’s precision of Romeo’s stirring lurid sexuality and youthful playfulness is faultless.
Zeffirelli delightfully locates the entire shooting of the film in a small village outside of Rome resembling the fictional city. The lavish costumes and sets are vibrant contrasts playfully staged throughout the film set against a historical Italian village. Nino Roti’s soundtrack is alluring, sensuous, and magical. Romeo and Juliet did win Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (Pasqualino De Santis) and Best Costume Design (Danilo Donati). It was also nominated for Best Director and Best Picture.
When l compare Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (1996) set on a fictional Verona Beach in Los Angeles I feel the focus is on the violence and gangster feuds. Whereas Zeffirelli’s film stays true to the bard’s language of love. It is rich in poetic metaphorical images and wrapped in visual splendour. It is an aesthetically exquisite and luxurious film and well-worth the experience.
Melbourne University and the British Council will continue celebrating the bard’s birthday until the end of the year.