Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Al Pacino finds his home

Al Pacino has always had something of a larger-than-life, Shakespearean aura, and his role as Shylock in Michael Radford's adaptation of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice provides Pacino with perfect hamming material (if you'll forgive the kosher pun): verbal scenery for the old man to chew to bits, something Pacino does with teeth-gnashing, spittle-flying gusto.

Radford's "The Merchant of Venice" is a drama, and only tangentially a comedy. The focus, from the incongruous opening titles (in 21st-century English, we're told something of the unpleasant history of the Jews in Venice) to one of the final scenes of the movie, is on the animosity between Shylock, who is a Jew, and Antonio, a Christian (and the eponymous merchant of Venice).

The basic plot is this: Antonio's young friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) is in love with the very rich and beautiful Portia, who is currently receiving suitors because this was stipulated in her late father's will. Her father's will also said that Portia cannot choose her mate; the suitors must instead solve a sort of puzzle involving three boxes: one gold, one silver, and one made of lead. One of the boxes contains Portia's picture; the person wise enough to select the correct box will be her husband.

For Bassanio to have his own shot at this, he needs money. He asks Antonio for money, but Antonio (played by Jeremy Irons) says his fortunes are tied up "at sea," with several ships sailing for different parts of the world. But Antonio, friend that he is, offers a credit option: what if he, Antonio, were to borrow money from Shylock the Jewish moneylender?

The opening titles inform us that the Jews practiced usury, the lending of money at interest, which was something the Christians of that era were forbidden to do. Antonio appeals to Shylock, who rails against Antonio's previous incivilities (in the film, Antonio is shown spitting on Shylock very early on, quickly establishing who the wronged party is). In the end, though, Shylock agrees to make the loan, and we have the famous "pound of flesh" deal: Shylock will loan Antonio the three thousand ducats he desires, but should Antonio prove unable to repay in three months' time, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio's flesh, cut off from whatever location Shylock should name. Later on, we find out that all of Antonio's ventures have failed-- every ship has sunk-- and Shylock, whose daughter has run off with a Christian, is claiming his pound of flesh.

The other major subplots are standard elements in Shakespearean comedy: cross-dressing, malentendus, feminine wisdom and nobility peeking through apparent coyness, and, at the end, just about everyone gets married. It's largely for this reason-- the presence of these formulaic elements-- that The Merchant of Venice is classified as a comedy. Radford's choice to downplay this in favor of a greater focus on the Jewish predicament is a reflection of the times we live in: we're uncomfortable-- as well we should be-- with such baldly antisemitic humor. While Shylock's character gets to deliver some of the most famous impassioned speeches in all of Shakespeare's oeuvre, he's still, at the end, the butt of every major joke, and I'm pretty sure that's how Shakespeare intended it. Radford and his cast take the risk of souring the comedy in favor of subverting the text's antisemitism, making it the major theme of the movie. As a result, what comedy there is is indeed flaccid, but that's a small price to pay because Pacino (and hats off to Jeremy Irons, too) makes Shylock come alive, cruel caricature though he be.

Shylock isn't a likable man. His stubborn, unyielding insistence on acquiring his pound of flesh doesn't endear him to us. But we come to understand, through Shakespeare's text, Pacino's vulnerability, and Radford's subversive direction, that Shylock isn't vindictive without reason. Antonio has acted in anything but a Christian way toward him; Shylock loses his precious daughter to a Christian; the Jews of Venice are quarantined in a ghetto at night and forced to wear red caps to identify themselves as Jews when they are free to move about the city during the daytime. Misery and bitterness, frustration and powerlessness-- these comprise the life of a Jew.

When Shylock's demand for Antonio's flesh comes to a head-- a moment Shakespeare surely intended to be comic-- Radford instead gives us a trial that leaves us with mixed and bitter feelings. Pacino's Shylock leaves that scene a beaten man, literally on his knees, face to the ground, and we moderns understand this to be yet another nail in the coffin of the already-marginalized Jewish community: a cruel Christian victory hiding behind the mask of Venetian fairness and New Testament piety.

Whether or not you agree with Radford's directorial choices (perhaps you'll feel he should have played the piece in a more politically incorrect manner), I guarantee you'll enjoy Al Pacino's performance. His voice, his posture, his expressiveness: it all works. Unlike in so many of his films set in modern-day America, Pacino in "The Merchant of Venice" doesn't look overly theatrical: he looks thoroughly at home.

NB: The Korean audience I sat with didn't seem to get that Shylock was a caricature. As Shylock insisted on his pound of flesh, even as Jeremy Irons's Antonio was vomiting in fear of the knife Shylock meant to wield on his sternum, the audience actually made "tsk"ing noises, exasperated that someone could be so insistent on the rule of law. One interesting passage from Shylock's courtroom speech struck me, and I reprint it here from Shakespeare's original text. In this extract, Shylock mocks Christian piety (and holds Christians to their own standards) by noting that many Venetians own slaves:

What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them: shall I say to you,
Let them be free, marry them to your heirs?
Why sweat they under burthens? let their beds
Be made as soft as yours and let their palates
Be season'd with such viands? You will answer
'The slaves are ours:' so do I answer you:
The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; 'tis mine and I will have it.
If you deny me, fie upon your law!
There is no force in the decrees of Venice.
I stand for judgment: answer; shall I have it?



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