Classic Cannon: Otello (1986)

Andrew reviews Cannon's brief foray into grand opera, Otello.

There was a brief period when Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus of Cannon Films' notoriety were determined to dispel the notion that they were a wheeling dealing peddler of schlock.  Moving away from trying to write and direct their own material which resulted in the likes of The Apple and Over the Top, Cannon co-owners decided it was time to try something completely out of left field: grand opera.  

Tapping world famous tenor Placido Domingo, the dynamic wished to finance Guiseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore with Domingo in the central role.  Domingo instead opted for what was at the time his most successful and frequently portrayed role of Otello, Verdi's own operatic adaptation of William Shakespeare's Othello.  In further service to Domingo's wishes, Domingo requested Jesus of Nazareth and The Champ director Franco Zeffirelli be the one to helm the project.  In an unprecedented move, Cannon Films fully financed the picture while keeping almost completely out of the way of Zeffirelli's vision for Otello which proved to be as ambitious, grand and gorgeous as anything in the distinguished auteur's illustrious career.  The resulting grand operating adaptation became known as Zeffirelli's favorite picture in his oeuvre, referring in passing to Golan-Globus as 'the best producers I ever worked for!'.

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Despite some truncation made to the original Verdi opera, omitting Willow Song and shortening a few other numbers, along with subtle deviations to the plot including dramatizing flashbacks which are only sung about in the opera version, Otello is as faithful of an adaptation of Verdi's grand opera as the cinematic form is likely to have at this juncture.  From the opening sequence of a schooner battered by oceanic white caps as an armada of costumed singers bellow out a heavenly chorus, here was a film that bore all the trademarks of Zeffirelli period drama splendor while in it's own manner transcending the expectations people had of the director at the time.  The set pieces of Otello's kingdom, the fabulous costume design, the ornate lighting and lush, epic vistas of the Greek countryside of Crete all work unanimously to create an achingly beautiful Shakespearean tale of love triangles, jealousy, betrayal, sin and redemption.  Much has been made of Placido Domingo's use of blackface in Otello which comes dangerously close to being laughably whitewashed to some, although the theatrical nature of the pieces and Domingo's own undeniable vocal talents in the titular role are forgivable in this case.  Zeffirelli for that matter could be pegged for the same theoretical offense by casting Robert Powell as Jesus of Nazareth but no matter.  Of Zeffirelli's films, Otello is undeniably the most scenic with no expense spared towards acute attention to visual detail.  It's worth noting Domingo took time off of the film's production to assist with rescue efforts after Mexico City was leveled by an earthquake, vicariously adding to the passion in his performance in the film in the long run.  Like Runaway Train, Otello one of the few Cannon Films productions to be nominated for prestigious film awards including but not limited to the Golden Globe and the Bafta Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.

Considered by Shakespeare/Verdi enthusiasts as a somewhat abbreviated adaptation (the soundtrack to the film is complete and unabridged by contrast), Domingo himself criticized Zeffirelli's adaptation for altering some of the songs as well as taking umbrage with the film's sound design.  In some sequences, the vocals are noticeably lower than they should be and Domingo placed blame on Zeffirelli's sound mixing for undermining his vocals.  Zeffirelli also arguably overloads his picture with all the hallmarks of an epic picture with some critics preferring the tighter production values of the stage play version of Otello.  Yes the film is overblown and purists will want the whole thing, but unlike other cinematic releases of what are basically filmed operas, including but not limited to videotaped broadcasts, Otello represents an attempt to transpose the splendor of the theater stage to the cinematic form and present it as a dynamic film rather than simply filming actors on stage.  Newcomers to opera as well as the the theater scene done on film may not want to pick Otello as their introductory chapter to the underrated art form.  As for myself, I ate up all of Zeffirelli's aesthetic pleasures offered up in lush, delicious form.  There's so much epic and vast beauty onscreen with such lovely music on the soundtrack, pure or deviant, Otello is absolutely worth seeing if only once.  Not to all tastes but fans of the grandiose and operatic take on Shakespeare will be elated!


- Andrew Kotwicki