Otello (1986)

PG  |   |  Drama, Music  |  12 September 1986 (USA)
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Based on Shakesphere's play, Verdi's opera depicts the devastating effects of jealousy, "...the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds upon". Believing Otello has promoted the... See full summary »



(libretto), (adaptation), 2 more credits »
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Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 2 wins & 6 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Katia Ricciarelli ...
Petra Malakova ...
Massimo Foschi ...
Edwin Francis ...
Sergio Nicolai ...
Remo Remotti ...
Antonio Pierfederici ...
Ezio Di Cesare ...
Cassio (voice)
John Macurdy ...
Lodovico (voice)
Constantin Zaharia ...
Roderigo (voice)
Edward Toumajian ...
Montano (voice)
Giannicola Pigliucci ...
Brabantio (voice)


Based on Shakesphere's play, Verdi's opera depicts the devastating effects of jealousy, "...the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds upon". Believing Otello has promoted the fast-rising Cassio over himself, Iago plots to destroy both Cassio and Otello. Iago convinces the jealous Otello that his beautiful wife Desdemona is unfaithful, and that Cassio is her lover. Jealousy is followed by tragedy, then retribution, "Has Heaven no more thunderbolts?" Written by Mike Smith <mismith@brody.med.ecu.edu>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Drama | Music


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Release Date:

12 September 1986 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Othellos  »

Box Office


$189,042 (USA)

Company Credits

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Technical Specs

Sound Mix:



Aspect Ratio:

1.66 : 1
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Did You Know?


Franco Zeffirelli later said that out of all the films he ever made, "Otello" is his favorite, and admitted that after he made the picture, he had "a bit of a crisis" because he felt that he could never be able to duplicate that achievement. See more »


Referenced in DVD-R Hell: The Day the Clown Cried (2014) See more »

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User Reviews

Superior minstrel-show.
21 June 2000 | by (montevideo, uruguay) – See all my reviews

In terms of audience expectations, opera films are the luckiest in the medium. Whereas comedies have to be funny, action films exciting or mysteries mysterious, opera films could be the dullest, visually incompetent farragos ever, as long as the music is there, booming in all its glory. And, with a few noble exceptions - the Archers, Losey, Bergman - that is in general what we opera lovers have been given: we are that easy to please.

Zeffirelli's OTELLO is far better than the usual, but is, if I may say so under IMDb guidelines, still hampered by a curious mixture of unfounded arrogance, cautious reverence and imaginative timidity. As any fool knows, the best films are founded on melodrama, literally music and drama, just like opera (and many great film-makers have produced opera also). Because action on stage is evidently limited, all the excitement, passion, emotion of characters' feelings and of extreme circumstance are carried by the music, in the same way narrative is less important in the films of, say, Minnelli or Sirk, than the vibrant mise-en-scene which speaks for characters when they cannot.

Opera, therefore, might seem a perfect medium for cinema. In another way, though, it is constricted. A spoken theatre play, for example, can be opened up with relatively little damage, you can create new scenes, add dialogue. But any director of opera carries the millstone of the score - you can cut, but you cannot write new music (or if you did you'd be shot), and so you have to work with what you've got, which increases the theatricality. Again, depending on your genius, you can be limited or liberated by this.

OTELLO benefits from this concentration because it is such an inexorable, claustrophobic piece, where the confinement of setting mirrors the different prisons characters find themselves in. But claustrophobia is uncomfortable, and Zeffirelli is catering to a bourgeois, generally non-cinema going audience, who want a tasteful, middle-brow night out, and so he never explores the opera's intensity as much as he might. And, we are reminded of Welles's OTHELLO, the second greatest Shakespearean adaptation, and know how it can be done.

This is a very traditional interpretation, not just for opera on stage, but for Shakespearean performances as well. We get the usual Cyprus garrison, the Renaissance costumes, the exotic local colour, the play of black and white, the sight of pure Desdemona in white lying on her pure, white bed. But Zeffirelli makes a few 'adjustments' that are not neccessarily in Verdi, but have some justification from Shakespeare. For instance, Desdemona's relations with Cassio are ambiguous, made seemingly sexual from the very beginning, making Otello's rage less irrational, and her 'innocence' more complicated. This might blunt the story's symbolic force, but makes the characterisation more plausible, as does Otello's suspicion from the start, so that Iago's poison is only one factor in the Moor's anguish. These kind of interpretive devices are acceptable, if not exactly enriching. What are less acceptable are the cuts to the score, brief perhaps, but sticking out like tatters on a brocade robe. What's inexplicable is that they're not really needed - unlike, say, 'Die Meistersinger', this opera is the same length as a regular feature - did we really need the orchestral epilogue over the credits, disturbing the cathartic power of the finale? Further, maybe the print I saw was aged, but the sound was very muffled, made more inaudible by intrusive sound effects which are presumably there to heighten the drama, but only serve to irritate (Zeffirelli as Brecht? I don't think so).

Visually, Zeffirelli is no Welles, and his shots are full of the propriety beloved of those who condescend to cinema. There are two sequences - Iago's self-revealing credo and Otello's jealous soliloquy - full of huge metaphysical power, bracing blasphemy and emotional voids that cry out for Welles; in fairness, these are the film's best scenes, but they are suffocated by restraint. Curiously enough, with the excessive zooming, clumsy compostions and unrhythmic editing, the nearest filmmaker to Zeffirelli is Welles' friend Jesse Franco - if the Italian never approaches that maverick's sheer profusion of ideas, there is a gratifying homoeroticism (especially Iago talking about Cassio's dream, immensely revealing or the villain's character) to compensate.

It would be inappropriate to expect astonishing acting from opera performers

  • the histrionic requirements of a huge hall and an exposing close-up are

completely different. I have mixed feelings about the casting of Placido Domingo. Surely, in the mid-80s, it is beyond offensive to cast a boot-polished singer in the lead role, especially with so many great black performers more than qualified. I suppose they wouldn't have enabled the film to get made. On the other hand, Domingo is the greatest tenor of the 20th century, the most daring, versatile and exciting, as well as the one with most subtle and expressive dramatic range. He is remarkable here, his acting surprisingly nuanced and moving. In his first appearance, entering from the storm, and in his first beg scene, halting the drunken brawl, Otello is a figure who emerges from chaos to assert order; his decline into madness, pointed by the profusion of scientific, 'rational', instruments, which become expressions of distortion, is painful to watch, but true. Katia Ricciarelli, excellent, looks like she's wandered in from 'Siegfried'.

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