Shakespeare (original tragedy)
Franco Brusati, Masolino D’Amico, Franco Zeffirelli
Verona Prod., Dino De Laurentiis Cin.Ca, B.H.E., F. Zeffirelli Prod.
Paramount, CIC Video
Anna Maria Guarnieri
Ever since the days of silent movies the story of the two lovers from Verona has been brought to the screen many times; some versions are freely taken from the Shakespearian text, others change the story to render it similar to previous stories. Zeffirelli’s version is perhaps one of the most beautiful ever made, some have called it the one and only cinematographic version of Shakespeare’s opera.
Zeffirelli works on the numerous meanings of the text creating an ode to youth, to the struggle against pre-established systems, to rebellion towards an older generation (represented not only by the parents and by the Prince, but also by Count Paris who should bridge the generational gap between the stars). The director chooses to entrust the lovers’ roles to Olivia Hussey (15 years old) and Leonard Whiting (17 years old), beautiful, young and innocent like the two Shakespearian youngsters. Furthermore he surrounds Romeo with a gang of friends almost the same age. Amongst the large group Mercutio stands out as the creative unstable genius, who in the first part of the film represents an ode to life and the joy of living.
The story told is that of the Bard/poet, but it’s also a clear insight of the period in which the film is made, ’68 with its youthful movements. Zeffirelli puts all his directional experience matured in the theatre and above all in the operatic lyrical field into this story resulting in a Romeo and Juliet who talk through the colors and the set. In fact, the film won two purely technical Oscars: photography (Pasqualino De Santis) and costumes (Danilo Donati). The love between the two youngsters blossoms and goes through the glancing game, the gestures and the managing of their spaces. Up until Mercutio and Tybalt’s death the narrated events follow the Shakespearian story step by step, then Zeffirelli eliminates whole scenes and the film quickens gaining a sharp rhythm which doesn’t leave the two stars a moment of respite between one disgrace and another. The words also remain Shakespearian, with a language rich in poetry and a purely theatrical rhythm. Franco Brusati and Masolino D’Amico do not change a thing of the Elizabethian English, moreover very similar to today’s English and still understandable; they do a thinning job, shortening monologues and dialogues and rendering them more adapt to cinematographic times.
It was impossible to maintain a 16th century language in the Italian version because the language has changed a great deal in the course of the centuries. The work done has been a modernization of speech, with respect to the historical setting and the different manners of speaking which every role presents in the original opera.
The process of simplification is clear right from the prologue, when the narrated voice of Vittorio Gassman recites the first two quatrains at the start of the film, where the “Due casate di eguale dignità” (Two households, both alike in dignity) become “Due Casate, entrambe ricche e potenti” (two households, both rich and powerful).
Clearer still is the simplification process in the next scene where the servants have a direct and more common language; see “Ehi, cerchi rogna?” (are you looking for trouble?) instead of “Do you quarrel, sir?” (Volete litigare, signore?), and above all the exchange before the duel where instead of “Draw if you be man” (Sguaina se sei un uomo) an insult “Vai al diavolo” (go to the devil) has been inserted. During the fight there is a close-up scene of Tybalt who after having wounded Benvolio, shouts “Auguri verme!” (best of luck worm!) out of place compared to “Now hasten home, frightened!”.
An inconsistency is found in Benvolio’s manner of speech when he calls Lady Montecchi “Signora” (Madam) and then calls Montecchi “zio” (uncle), denoting a different level of respect between aunt and uncle, placing the aunt higher than the head of the family. Furthermore in the Italian language at the time Benvolio would have used “Madonna”, much closer to the meaning of “Lady”.
The rich visual language used by Mercutio is however respected in full. Queen Mab’s speech is adapted not only to the lip movement but also to the mimic of the actor and is rich with explicit double meanings; the clearest is at the end, where the original text says: “… and learns them first to bear/Making them women of good carriage” (literally e insegna loro come si fa/Rendendole donne di buon portamento) is translated with “gli monta addosso, aggrappata alle mammelle/e gli insegna a farsi caricare…” (he jumps on, holding on to the breasts/udder and is taught how to be carried).
At the beginning of the monologue there’s an etymological mistake: Mercutio affirms that Queen Mab is no bigger “della pietra d’un anello di un’assessore comunale”, original version “an agate stone/on the forefinger of an alderman”. Nowadays alderman means city counselor, but in Shakespeare’s time the term indicated a nobleman of high standard who withheld the role of city magistrate. The play is set in a time when boroughs become Signories, in fact a Prince is head of the city, so it’s impossible to talk of city counselors!
The opposite mistake is made in the dance scene when Tybalt who upon seeing Romeo and Juliet dancing together exclaims “Zio è un’ignominia”, (Uncle, it’s a disgrace). The English version offers a simple “I’ll not endure him”. In a context of a general modernization of speech it may have been better to use dishonor or shame; disgrace is out of place if one considers that the effort to modernize the speech is centered above all on the younger characters.
Another thing worth noticing in this scene is the theme change in the song which counterpoints Romeo and Juliet’s meeting. In English the theme is of a young girl, compared to a blooming rose which soon dies, and as Cupid has already written with whom the young lad will fall in love, affirming that love is a gentle golden path which doesn’t deteriorate. The Italian version however talks of the abandonment of children’s games by the girl who discovers love and all that signifies childhood no longer interests her.
Albeit different, both versions maintain the love-story of the film but perhaps a more literal translation of the English version would have been preferable. The original version in fact not only seems more appropriate to the story of the two lovers but it also includes some metaphoric terms used by Shakespeare to describe the two lovers and their love: in the theatrical text Juliet is compared to a rose, in the cinematic version it’s the balcony scene which is emblematic where Juliet herself defines their love as “che è ancora soltanto un germoglio/ può diventare un bel fiore” (still only a seed/ could become a beautiful flower).
Very enjoyable is Mercutio’s line, when he substitutes Romeo’s call on behalf of his friends with “Romeo, marameo” creating a certain rhythm at the beginning of the line heightened by the alliteration –ia “Pazzia! Follia! Mania! Anima mia!” (Folly! Madness! Mania! My soul!) giving the scene a particular rhythm.
Another interesting change is one of Friar Laurence’s first lines “Se tu mi confessi una sciarada/Ti assolvo con un indovinello”, which translates the line “Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift”, and it is through this game of words that makes the confusion which love has created in Romeo even more obvious not allowing him to make himself understood (the reason for which the following disgraces take place).
A marvelous way of exploiting the Italian form of speech is the translation of Mercutio’s word playing, the morning after the dance when he meets Romeo: “Bon-jour, non vi meritate un saluto alla francese quando ieri sera siete filato all’inglese” translation of “Bon-jour, there’s a French salutation for your French slop”, a more sparkling line easily understood by the Italian public. An Italian proverb is part of Friar Laurence’s speech too, when at the end of the scene in which Romeo asks him to celebrate his matrimony with Juliet he answers: “Chi va piano va sano e lontano” (literally: he who goes slow goes healthily and a long way), Italian version of: “Wisely and slow. They stumble that run too fast”.
Last liberties of the translator can be noticed in the final scene of the film, respectively in the two farewells of Romeo and Juliet where the tragic effect is enhanced by a slight horror-film effect. Romeo says farewell to Juliet whom he believes dead saying “…with worms that are thy chambermaids”, translated with “… con i vermi che ti divoreranno”, (with worms that will devour you); the line furthermore denotes a contradiction because beforehand Romeo had said that death wanted Juliet as its bride and that is why she was kept beautiful and intact. This macabre note is found again when Juliet pleads to the dagger: “…Oh, caro pugnale arrugginisci qui, immerso nel mio sangue”, (oh dear dagger, rust here, immersed in my blood) the Shakespearian version of the line has a more romantic aftertaste “…Oh, happy dagger! This is thy sheath; there rust and let me die.”).
For a film which can be defined “colossal”, the choice of the voices had to be very accurate and that’s why big Italian cinema (and theatre) stars were chosen, like Vittorio Gassman for the off screen voice which perfectly substitutes the tones and rhythms of the original Prologue recited by Laurence Olivier. Giancarlo Giannini has Romeo’s voice, in a slightly day-dreamy interpretation here and there, but which fits wells with the physical sometimes childish traits of Leonard Whiting.
Juliet speaks through the mouth of Anna Maria Guarneri, who manages to follow the unexpected mood changes which Olivia Hussey brings very naturally to the screen, without ever exaggerating when reciting the more emphatic scenes like the news of the death of Tybalt or the announcement of the marriage to Paris.
A particular note of merit goes to Giorgio Albertazzi who perfectly becomes Mercutio, managing to follow with his own voice every step of the mad John McEnery, a truly wild Mercutio.
Another difficult character to give only a voice to is the nurse, which Pat Heywood manages to bring to life in all its coarseness but within the narrow boundaries of Elizabethian speech. Dhia Cristiani gives a very good interpretation, helped however by a translation which emphasizes its vulgarity by using a more scurrile speech.
[original review in Italian by Francesca De Rosa]