In 1986, in one of their rare attacks of culture, the amazing team of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus opted to produce and release (through their Canon Films company) Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of Gisuseppe Verdi’s opera Otello, which of course is based on Shakespeare’s play. Well, you don’t get much more cultured than that—and Zeffirelli was, of course, a wholly respectable name in film, in opera and in Shakespeare. Zeffirelli’s glossy, solid productions of opera on the stage were very well-regarded, as much for their look as anything else, which was also his doing, since he designed the sets. That, of course, meant that Zeffirelli would design the sets here, too. Culture and respectability is a hard parlay to buck, especially when you head up a company mostly known for titles like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). And Golan-Globus pretty much got what they paid for—along with two of the biggest names in music: singer Placido Domingo and conductor Lorin Maazel.
Zeffirelli’s film is big, sweeping and gorgeous to look at. Scarcely a minute of it is dull, and it offers at least the illusion of being a faithful, straightforward—and nicely cinematic—rendering of the opera. But Zeffirelli had a secret to his approach to the story, accentuating the gay subtext that can be found in the story as concerns Iago’s (Justino Diaz) reasons for causing dissent between Otello (Domingo) and Desdemona (Katia Ricciarelli). It’s all tastefully done—this, after all, is Zeffirelli—but it’s in there, as is a great deal of similar material evident in the interplay between the male characters and the way they’re photographed. Of course, you can ignore all this if you want, but it really does serve to give the film a fresh edge and makes this Otello an interesting take on the material, without actually altering it.