FROM A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and Blade Runner to the Arnold Schwarzenegger epics Total Recall and Terminator, the decay of contemporary culture has been dramatized by movies set in the near future in which a stable social order has degenerated into anarchy and violence. Civilization's basic institutions— religion, education and the state—have lost their legitimacy and authority is based on naked force.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom) boldly sets his William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in this kind of dy-sutopian fantasy-world, skillfully adhering to the genre's conventions with one important differ-ence—the Church has somehow survived. The action takes place in Verona Beach, a brash, exuberant, post-modern metropolis with a strong Hispanic flavor and great extremes of wealth and poverty. It looks like a cross between Miami and Los Angeles except that monumental churches and huge statues of Jesus dot the tawdry landscape. An exaggerated Latino religiosity permeates the atmosphere. Almost every home prominently displays holy pictures surrounded with candles, and even automatic weapons are decorated with pictures of the Virgin Mary.
Civic peace has been shattered as gangster-capitalists, Fulgencio Capulet (Paul Sorvino) and Ted Montague (Brian Dennehy), battle for control of the city and its markets. The Capulets&spos; hit men and enforcers are garbed in ultra-hip black designer wear. Their Montague equivalents flaunt colorful, surfer-type sports clothes, with their names tattooed on the back of their bald skulls. Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pearce use Shakespeare's original language throughout, with occasional trims to suit the fast-paced style of their cutting-edge adaptation.
Romeo Montague (Leonardo Di Caprio), son of war-lord Ted, is a handsome, brooding would-be poet who still hangs out with his gangbanger kinsmen. His friend, Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) likes to dress up in drag. At considerable risk, the two crash the Fellini-esque costume ball of their deadly rivals, the Capulets. Once inside, Romeo, garbed as a knight in shining armor, meets Juliet Capulet (Claire Danes), Fulgencio's daughter. Costumed in white angel's wings, the young woman's manner is simple and direct. The two teenagers first catch sight of each other on opposite sides of a huge fish tank. Despite the gaudy excess of their surroundings, they respond to each other with the sweetness and innocence of young love. Their hearts are soon intertwined.
Like adolescents everywhere, Romeo and Juliet resent the fact that the world they've inherited from their parents controls their lives, and they quickly scheme to run off and get married. But the obstacles to their happiness seem infinite. Juliet's family has already picked out Time magazine's bachelor of the year, Dave Paris, to be her husband. And the violence between the Capulets and the Montagues seems to have a rhythm all its own. Against his will, Romeo is shamed into a duel with Juliet's malevolent kinsman, Tybalt (John Leguizamo) and kills him. The two lovers cannot remain together.
The person they count on to help them is Father Laurence (Peter Postlewaite), a monk with a large cross tattooed on his back. This trust, in itself, is remarkable. In the real world of today, it's unlikely that two cool teenagers would turn to a celibate cleric for this kind of support. But the filmmaker has made the movie's mannerist brand of Catholicism so much a part of the air his characters breathe, that, in context, it seems believable. Father Laurence is also the only person in Verona Beach who's calm, well-spoken and wise. The lovers&spos; respect for him seems fully justified.
But fate conspires against their carefully developed plans, and the action moves inexorably to its tragic climax. Luhrmann departs from the usual staging of the denouement by having Juliet revive just before Romeo expires. The movie packs an emotional wallop, and teenagers have turned it into a box-office hit. Traditionalists may be dismayed that the story is propelled more by the filmmaker's dazzling visual fireworks than by the verbal poetry of the original. But Luhrmann's approach makes the play accessible to a generation brought up on rock videos and television.
More importantly, the story has been presented with the emotional complexities of the original text still intact. Clearly the young lovers'passion is driven by hormones, rebellion and psychological projection as much as by knowledge of the other person. Yet we root for them because of their sincerity and intensity. The purity of their feelings contrasts favorably with the cynical manipulations of the adults around them.
As they have for centuries, audiences identify with the theme of young lovers taking on the world. And by transplanting the action from Renaissance Italy to a near future where nothing seems to work except violence, the filmmaker has set the play in an environment that resonates with today's teenagers. To them, the principles on which our social order is based seem increasingly fragile.
But the movie holds up one institution that still flourishes despite the surrounding decay—the Church. And although this hasn't created a virtuous society, there's still a clearer sense of right and wrong in Verona Beach than in much of contemporary America. For all its postmodern images, the film does-n't adhere to the kind of moral relativism that seems to have become the norm in our culture. Young people have found this appealing.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.