The directing accomplishments of John Cassavetes have such a powerful reputation that even when he appears as an actor in other filmmakers' work he seems to exert an auteurial pull. Indeed, Paul Mazursky seems to be counting on this in Tempest, his 1982 modernization of Shakespeare's final play. Casting Cassavetes as architect Philip Dimitrius (the stand-in for The Tempest's lead character, the magician/ousted duke Prospero) guaranteed an intense performance at the movie's center; casting Cassavetes' wife and longtime collaborator Gena Rowlands as Philip's wife Antonia offered Mazurky a direct tap into the power of Cassavetes' body of work. And what power it is.
Though Cassavetes' work as actor and director is rooted in years of stage work his films are deeply informed by improvisation, a connection to the immediate moment with little apparent influence of classical works. It's difficult to imagine Cassavetes initiating a project like Tempest, but damned if he doesn't give it his all. Cassavetes approaches the story of old age, anger, and forgiveness from a less lofty, more earthbound place than Shakespeare imagined, but the story resonates no less strongly for it. Propsero summons the storm with all of the literary might and effects the theatre can muster; in Tempest Cassavetes provokes it with delicate traces of his glasses and a gentle coaxing, to equally powerful effect. Even his climactic appeals for forgiveness eschew Shakespeare's poetry for a simple, gut-level "Forgive me" that carries volumes of tragic sincerity.
Mazursky's adaptation is startlingly faithful to Shakespeare's play, adhering to its structure (unfolding over the course of a single day, aided by flashbacks) and parallelling many of its scenes. Mazursky's cast are uniformly as committed as Cassavetes, and all reap similar boutnies, from Susan Sarandon's airy but knowing Aretha to Molly Ringwald's young but wise Miranda. Ringwald's performance in Tempest was her debut, and if she felt any pressure it doesn't show. Philip and Antonia's final, this-is-divorce argument is the kind of scene Cassavetes and Rowlands must have explored and executed countless times, but Ringwald brings her own music to the scene and impressively keeps at their level. (She's equally moving in her first scene with Sam Robards - the original Miranda/Ferdinand scene is one of the loveliest meet-cute scenes ever, and Ringwald and Robards' 1982 correlate, aided by underwater photography and Stomu Yamashta's achingly gorgeous score, does it more than justice.)
Earthy and idyllic, Tempest is a worthwhile trip. It dances to its own peculiar rhythms, approaching both Shakespeare and Cassavetes from angles not often seen, and fuses classical and modern artistic impulses into a splendid and ultimately moving whole.