A Winning Return to Venice

Al Pacino shines in a lush new treatment of the Shakespeare classic

Shakespeare’s works have always made for popular cinematic adaptations, and many directors have chosen to play with time periods and presentation of the Bard’s works. In the 1990s alone, “Romeo and Juliet” set the lovers in Mexico City with MTV-style shooting; Richard III was also put in contemporary settings and Kenneth Branagh made “Love’s Labour’s Lost” a 1930s musical. Earlier, Japanese master director Akira Kurosawa took “Macbeth” and “King Lear” and recreated them as “Yojimbo” and “Ran,” set in medieval Japan.

A quick Internet search reveals more than 550 film productions inspired by Shakespeare.

So, when a new Shakespeare adaptation remains faithful to the original script in terms of historical context, part of the challenge is making sure that a 400-year-old work can seem original. Director Michael Radford seizes the dare and succeeds with “The Merchant of Venice,” itself adapted more than a dozen times for large and small screens. Along with assembling an excellent cast and sparing nothing to let costume designer Sammy Sheldon get the Renaissance fashions down pat, Radford wisely sets much of the action outdoors in Venice itself. Famous for its canals and car-free environment, Venice hasn’t changed all that much since Shakespeare’s time, give or take a church or piazza here or there. Even the worst film or cast goes up a star when set in Venice, a cast member in its own right.

In 1994, Radford deployed rural Italy to its best advantage in “Il Postino” and applied that lesson well here. As with most of the Bard’s works, “The Merchant of Venice” involves several plots and subplots. The Jewish moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino) lends Antonio (Jeremy Irons) the money his friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) feels he needs to impress wealthy heiress Portia (Lynn Collins) in the hopes of marrying her. A prologue tells the audience that as enlightened as Venice was in the 16th century—indeed, it had the most advanced government in Europe at the time—its Jewish population was sequestered in a ghetto and forced to wear certain identifying garments. They were also proscribed from certain professions, though as elsewhere in Europe moneylending not being one of them.

Early on, we see Antonio publicly repudiating Shylock, even spitting on him. So when Antonio comes looking for a large sum to borrow, Shylock delights in potential revenge for his humiliation: if Antonio defaults, he is to give the moneylender “a pound of flesh.”

At Portia’s palazzo, potential suitors for her affections and, more importantly, her wealth must submit to her late father’s puzzle—to correctly choose the chest which holds her portrait. Before Bassanio’s arrival, a daring Moorish prince and an effeminate Spanish duke try and fail to woo Portia. These scenes present some comic relief, as do the sidekicks Salerio (John Sessions) and Nerissa (Heather Goldenhersh).

When Antonio suffers a financial blow, he is left vulnerable to Shylock’s unthinkable challenges as Al Pacino delivers one of his best performances, perhaps in his career. His dragged-down face and general worldweariness work well for him here as Shylock, who is clearly oppressed and humiliated by institutionalized anti-Semitism, despite his great wealth. The Shylock character has often been faulted as inherently anti-Semitic, but here, even though the play’s language seems intact, Shylock’s motivation is clearly sympathetic—he is reacting to his environment, and when he shouts, “the pound of flesh—tis mine!” you can almost physically feel his palpitating yearning for of revenge, and not just for himself, but for everyone locked up in that ghetto.

If there’s a problem with the film, it lies in translating the structure of the original script. After the climactic tribunal scenes, in which Pacino ignites the screen as a sweating, sinewy Jeremy Irons bares his exposed flesh as stipulated by the loan agreement, the movie goes on for another half hour as Portia “teaches Bassanio a lesson” about the importance of keeping a promise.

But who are we to argue with William Shakespeare?

As with several Shakespeare plays, there’s plenty for queer audiences to chew on here, as Portia dons men’s clothing and facial hair to do some gender bending gymnastics in the tribunal scene, making a mockery of the Venetian republic’s judicial system in the process. And the intimate friendship of Bassanio and Antonio, which precipitates the crisis of the loan’s terms, has a very gay cast to it, even if it generally stays within the bounds of male bonding.

Quibbles about the film’s denouement aside, “Merchant” wins on just about every moviegoing level, and proves once again just how accessible Shakespeare left intact can be.

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