The Merchant of Venice written and directed by Michael Radford, produced by Cary Brokaw, Michael Cowen, Barry Navidi and Jason Piette, with Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes and Lynn Collins. 138 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (January 21). For venues and times, see Movies, page 85. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Can anything save Shakespeare's noxious comedy, The Merchant of Venice? Four hundred years, countless stagings and 20-plus film adaptations later, and directors are still struggling to find a way to redeem the story of bad debt, cross-dressers, bewitching lovers and a vindictive Jew whose downfall is supposed to be played for laughs.
But after the Holocaust, in which a genocidal dictator used portrayals of a greedy, inferior people to encourage the slaughter of 6 million, The Merchant Of Venice can no longer be funny. A present-day politically correct Merchant must rehabilitate the Jew.
Michael Radford's new big-screen adaptation tries just about everything to turn what was once camp into pathos. It doesn't work. Sumptuous recreations of a 16th-century Venice overflowing with licentious and ridiculously frivolous Venetian nobles we are meant to despise cannot alter the archetype: greedy Shylock, evil Jew, demanding his pound of flesh.
Casting Al Pacino as Shylock is supposed to bring gravitas and dignity to the role. Other main characters whom Shakespeare meant us to find delightful and amusing are portrayed by Radford as unctuous gambolling gluttons perpetually swilling wine, fondling whores and spitting on the Jews who have no choice but to lend them money anyway.
Radford takes great pains to show that Shylock is driven to near insanity by the abrupt departure of his only daughter. Jessica flees her father's house for life as a free-wheeling Christian hedonist and wife of one of Antonio's cadre. Antonio not only spits on Shylock but also forfeits his debt and sanctions the theft of the moneylender's daughter. No wonder Shylock is goaded into a murderous rage.
Suddenly, a man who seemed to care most about money refuses all offers to repay Antonio's debt twice over. Fuggedaboudit, you can almost hear Pacino insisting in New Yorkese, echoes of better movies featuring different kinds of bloodthirsty usurers.
Why does Radford downplay the work's anti-Semitism and racism? He deletes scenes surely considered hilarious 400 years ago that show just how prejudiced these characters really are. In one deleted aside, Jessica's new paramour, Lorenzo, and the Jew's former servant, Lancelot, mincingly debate who is naughtier - Lorenzo for raising "the price of hogs" by converting a Jew, or Launcelot for "getting up of the negro's belly," i.e., impregnating a Moor.
If you're trying to turn a comedy into a tragedy by showing the utter venality of Shakespeare's Venetians, this is surely the scene to leave in.
Radford, like Shakespeare, wants it both ways. He wants us to feel sorry for Shylock while sympathizing with the travails of characters like the love-struck Bassanio and the down-on-his luck Antonio. These two strut off after having successfully stripped the Jew of his cash and forced him to convert or be executed.
After that, can we care about the ensuing joking lusty lovers' quarrel that makes up the final scenes of the play and Radford's movie? Isn't that the scene to delete if you're altering The Merchant to explore its legacy as a vehicle for a cruel, hateful stereotype?
Let it end with the image of a destroyed Shylock staring mournfully into the synagogue he is now banned from. Let it end with Shylock, brought down by those who would pretend to be his betters.
People are still arguing about whether Shakespeare intended The Merchant Of Venice as an enduring denunciation of the Jews. Despite Shylock's heartfelt soliloquy about how his people also bleed and laugh - delivered with such vehemence by Pacino that even the prostitutes stop their frolicking to listen - you can pretty much argue either way.
In the end, it doesn't matter. Shylock's real-life counterparts have borne the brunt of the stereotype ever since. Montreal firebombs and the desecrated Jewish cemeteries of Europe show that many are still sympathetic to Antonio's revulsion. Mel Gibson's big-screen adaptation of another anti-Semitic theatrical diversion, the "passion play" showing heartless Jews setting up Jesus to be tortured, was last year's smash hit.
Ultimate symbol of Semitic perfidy and greed, Shylock is beyond redemption no matter how much spittle and tears Pacino consents to have run down his rabbinically bearded cheeks.
If Shakespeare had known what real-life horrors his inconsequential comedy would eventually reflect, he, too, might have turned this story tragic.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Michael Radford) Rating: NNN
The Merchant Of Venice reinvents Shakespeare's callowest comedy as the tragic tale of a Jew undone by casually anti-Semitic Venetian nobles. Al Pacino does his best to imbue moneylender Shylock with dignity, but his phlegmy soliloquies seem overwrought compared to Jeremy Irons's silently aggrieved Antonio.
The merchant Antonio, about to face the death penalty for forfeiting a loan, should be the one frothing and gnashing his teeth, particularly since he only borrowed the cash to help his best buddy and true love, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), impress the comely Portia (Lynn Collins).
A 16th-century Venice filled with septic canals sets the tone well, and actors Fiennes and Mackenzie Crook (The Office) do great work as lascivious, foppish Venetians. Still, Radford struggles to alter the stereotype of the evil, greedy Jew who gets what he deserves.