In Verona there are two feuding families, the Montagues and Capulets, who have been pitted against one another for so long they can barely remember the reasons. Certainly the younger generations of both take it for granted that they have enemies on their opposite side, never questioning why their elders and supposedly betters would want to continue a conflict that has brought nothing but misery, but it gives the young men a chance to demonstrate their bravado, as they do when walking around the streets of the city. Today Montague Mercutio (John McEnery), something of a joker, gets into trouble with the Capulets, but there is real tragedy to come...
And if you don't know what that is, then evidently the story of Romeo and Juliet has passed you by, as penned by William Shakespeare and one of the most famous doomed romances of all time, possibly the most famous. So overfamiliar was this tale, even in 1968, that just about everyone would have been aware of how it ended, it was so widely studied in schools (presumably because the teenage protagonists were supposed to be of interest to schoolchildren) that this production went full circle in a funny way and was the go-to movie version to be shown to the kids in class. All the more appropriate that director Franco Zeffirelli had specifically aimed this work at that age group.
This was released the year after the Summer of Love, and that mood of social optimism among the new generation was quickly becoming more complex since there were some decidedly unlovely elements in the world, most obviously for the Western audience the spectre of the Vietnam War which had galvanised the youthful population into feeling this was their time to change the course of history. All this electrifying politics and culture was very much present here, not quite by having the characters represent the hippies, though they are brightly dressed and Romeo (Leonard Whiting) is introduced clutching a bunch of wildflowers, but by casting the two lovers as actual teenagers, building up their innocent hopes for the future, and then having that inevitably crushed.
If Shakespeare had written this as one of his comedies it might have proved a happier tale to depict how the youth of 1968 were anticipating their eventual victory, yet in its manner it proved otherwise as when the seventies dawned, so did a certain grit in both the news stories and the fiction reflecting them that more or less said, well, the optimism was nice while it lasted but we're not living in that world now. Thus Romeo and Juliet's final scenes held more power the further away from the late sixties we became, knowing that while they would not get any older, captured in a moment of time forever, so would the images and record of the point it was created, and the more upset the couple became, the more melancholy the audience would get, not simply because it was a sad story of prejudice and misunderstanding, but also because it represented dreams gone wrong.
Zeffirelli arranged what was probably his best attempt to film the Bard on Italian streets and inside Italian buildings, sundrenched and vividly hued, exercising a considerable energy that compensated for the necessary dubbing of the performances, as many Italian movies were even if the language they were made in was English, as it was here. Though this lent a slight artificial quality to the scenes, there was enough sincerity in the performing as far as the visuals went to make up for it, with Whiting and his Juliet Olivia Hussey barely able to keep their hands off each other, all kisses and cuddles in almost every sequence to feature them together. Romeo and Juliet are so besotted with each other that they insist on getting married in spite of having previously spent about twenty minutes together as far as we can see, but that was love at first sight for you (at a party in this case), and there was a sweetness to their relationship that again spoke to a nostalgia for times past, even though it was intended to be a tribute to current events in '68. Overall, bright when it needed to be and unexpectedly effective when the tragedy settled, with Nino Rota's famously swooning love theme a contributor to that (assuming you had not heard it too often).