Gloriously cinematic despite its tiny budget, Orson Welles’s Othello is a testament to the filmmaker’s stubborn willingness to pursue his vision to the ends of the earth. Unmatched in his passionate identification with Shakespeare’s imagination, Welles brings his inventive visual approach to this enduring tragedy of jealousy, bigotry, and rage, and also gives a towering performance as the Moor of Venice, alongside Suzanne Cloutier as the innocent Desdemona, and Micheál MacLiammóir as the scheming Iago. Shot over the course of three years in Italy and Morocco and plagued by many logistical problems, this fiercely independent film joins Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight in making the case for Welles as the cinema’s most audacious interpreter of the Bard.
Throughout his career, Shakespeare was conflicted about identity at the moment when the question What is an Englishman? was as vital to his audience as questions about identity are to us today. “In Twelfth Night you have the idea that you could make someone insane simply by telling him he’s insane,” Spiro said. “If Richard III had had a straight back, would he be a good person? Is his crooked back a sign that he is a bad person, or do we treat people with crooked backs badly?” To Spiro, the terrifying note Shakespeare sounds again and again, despite being a word-drunk pioneer of the English language, is that talking about it doesn’t help. Hamlet can’t reason his way out of the trap of the self. Neither can Othello, who is helped neither by logic, nor by proof, nor friendship, nor even by language, because all of these normal ways of making sense of the world have been arrayed in a conspiracy against him by Iago.