Romeo and Juliet, like A Christmas Carol, is one of those enduring classics that’s even more prevailing than the endless remakes and updates would readily imply. This legendary Shakespeare play has not only been the source of continued direct re-visitation, it’s also helped to shape the basic foundation of the romantic melodrama in a fashion that lives on. It’s one of earliest widely known incarnations of the story of the true love that society forbids, and this basic scenario has served virtually all romances of one kind or another—even the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. The central conceit, even divorced of Shakespeare’s virtuosic poetry, is irresistible: We all want to believe that there’s an unexpected love who will unlock something in us that will allow us to reach our fullest expression of ourselves.
Cherkess takes the durable story and transplants it to the Ottoman Transjordan in the year 1900 and manages to lose everything about the play that captured our imagination in the process. The Circassians, displaced from warfare with the Russian Empire, find themselves thrown uncomfortably together with the Bedouin, as both parties understandably resent enforced confines with another. The land of the Transjordan is hot, challenging desert, and the day-to-day work, in one of the more vivid moments in the film, is shown to be taxing and miserable. Of course, as tradition must dictate, there’s a (blandly) pretty boy and a (blandly) pretty girl from opposing sides who fall in love. There’s also a kindly, indulgent father, a distrustful, conformist mother, and a quick-tempered brother, who all threaten to quash the blossoming love in their own intentional or unintentional fashion.
Using Romeo and Juliet as a means to elaborate on little-known cultures is a promising and occasionally quite fruitful idea (see many of Akira Kurosawa’s classics), but Cherkess trivializes its subject so offensively that you instantly come to loathe the two leads, who’re callow, self-absorbed youths oblivious to the hardship with which everyone else in the film is clearly struggling. That was a major point of Shakespeare’s play, of course, but filmmaker Mohydeen Quandour doesn’t critique what is basically narcissism (the leads have a corresponding physical vacuity) so much as openly indulge it, and the effect is infuriating.
But that hardly matters, as Cherkess is so inept it inspires appreciation of the craft that goes into even grade-B romantic melodrama such as last year’s The Other Woman. No moment in the film seems to directly connect to another; they stand apart as isolated little atoms of numbing inanity. It’s often unfair for an English-speaking writer to criticize dialogue in a film in another language, as subtitles are often stilted and functional, but Cherkess features staging so cramped and inexpressive that you’re forced to look to the subtitles for nourishment, and, while something may indeed be lost in translation, there’s no denying the stupendous terribleness that English audiences are forced to endure, with “Oh, what a calamity!” and “But, what will your father say?” operating as the heights of poetry here. Pauline Kael famously panned the Shakespeare-bastardization known as West Side Story, and she was right to do so, but Cherkess makes that gloppy bowl of oats look like Olivier by comparison.