Merchant of Venice Comes to Film

Baron Tibor of Rock Valley recently attended the latest film version of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and wrote a review.

Baron Tibor writes:

We all know the movie had a good script. :-) And, has been a hot potato for years because of the "anti-semitic" qualities of the text.

I was quite taken with this movie, and I could easily see purchasing it on DVD. The director used some marvelous "visual only" cues before and after the movie, to frame it a bit, and to make it clear that the Jews of Venice were harshly treated in a world that could be very cruel. This balanced the film production nicely - and Al Pacino made the role of Shylock totally believable. A man who loves his faith and his people, but has become bent by cruelty - that directed to him, and that he directed at his daughter.

Al Pacino - what an amazing actor. You can cast him in any demanding role, and he'll bring things to it you never could have imagined. Yet - who the hell do you put on a stage next to him? Who won't he outshine? He just plain outshone everyone. Which means that, despite having seen a variety of stagings of this play all my life, I saw something new in Shylock. Which, alone, made this movie an experience worth having.

Another marvel of this film was the lighting. Oh, my goodness, the lighting. So many scenes were so artfully framed, lit just as if they were pictures from that time and place. It was beautiful - it was brilliant oil paintings come to life. And, for a wonder, with a few minor exceptions (does Portia need that much blush?), the lighting and the makeup worked.

There was a lot of intimation that Antonio and Bassanio were lovers, or so I thought. I'm not sure if that was necessary, or even if I was looking for it so I found it, but it helped me understand better how the relationship between the two might be sensible.

Portia, poor Lynn Collins. I'll give her two great things. She really held her own when she sex-changed and faced down the Shylock as the learned Doctor from Padua. For that scene alone, I'm glad she was cast. The only actor in the film who really stood up to Pacino. And she illuminated for me how difficult a role Portia is. Because I think she turned in 90 cents worth of a dollars need. Portia is the ingenue girl, caught up in Bassanio, loyal to her father's death request. She is the ardent lover, falling for her betrothed at the speed of light. She's the diplomat, turning away suitors one by one. The good friend to Nerissa, the kind ward for Jessica, the clever adversary to Shylock, the brilliant manipulator of her husband when she asks for his ring.

I wish the interpretation had given a solid meaning to Portia. This interpretation gave her too much to do.

There was a lot to like about this film. In some respects, in retrospect, it may have needed a Titan Pacino as Shylock, to imbalance some of the text of the play. Maybe it was OK to have Pacino weigh more than the pound the rest of the cast put together.

Oh, and let me for a second praise Tubal, who provided the weary counterpoint to Shylock. The Jew who accepted his lot, and kept his head, and tried not to make the world a worse place. Graceful balance there. I was impressed. For all that it seemed an effortless performance, I think the film would have run badly out of balance if there were not some examples of decent Jews. For that matter, the false-to-fact staging of the court, with so many Jews present, also worked - as they raged to Shylock to please, please, show mercy to Antonio. It had no versimiltude, but it added a lot of power.

Some of the visuals that were outside the text, really made me happy. Jessica's scene with her ring at the end of the film, I thought very redemptive. And while the text forces Shylock to become Christian, there is a visual scene of all the other Jews going to synagogue at the end, while Shylock looks on from outside - as they close the doors of the shul to pray, sealing him out. His body posture and sad, sad eyes told of yet another hurt, and rage, and level of suffering laid upon him, as of all the sufferings of all the Jews that came before. Some of the views of the gate to the ghetto. Pacino whetting his knife as he waited for permission to fulfill his bond.

Overall, it was not a perfect masterpiece. But I loved the insight it gave me, I'll admire Pacino for the rest of my days (as if I didn't already), and it was more than worth the time I spent, and the ducats I paid.

Baron Tibor of Rock Valley, OP