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Friday, Oct. 21, 2005

Shaping a Shakespearean monster

The Merchant of Venice

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Michael Radford
Running time: 130 minutes
Language: English
Opens Oct. 29
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Venetian loanshark Shylock is one of the least complex of all of Shakespeare's major characters: just a sly, gnarly old man full of greed who, in the end, gets what's coming to him.

News photo
Al Pacino in "The Merchant of Venice"

Filmmaker Michael Radford, however, takes a slightly different tack. "Shylock? I'd say he's a guy with a severe case of road rage."

Radford wrote the screenplay and directed "The Merchant of Venice," its first big-screen adaptation. For Radford ("Dancing at the Blue Iguana," "Il Postino") this was a dream project.

"Apart from being my favorite Shakespeare play it's simply a great story with one of the best courtroom scenes in history. At the same time the subject is very, very sensitive. It's been on TV a few times but hardly ever on a theater screen," said Radford, who was recently in Tokyo to promote the film.

" 'Merchant of Venice' as Shakespeare wrote it, has anti-Semitism plastered all over it. Today, even people who've never read the play know that Shylock is slang for loanshark, and not the nice kind of loanshark, either. From the filmmaker's point of view, this just had too many political obstacles."

Radford decided that beating around the bush wasn't going to do any good so he approached the subject head-on: In the very beginning of the story he inserts title cards with terse descriptions of what it meant to be a Jew in Venice, 1596: reviled, ghettoized, confined by law to unholy occupations like moneylending. Once outside the ghetto, Jews were made to wear scarlet caps to distinguish them from Gentiles and this, on the head of Al Pacino as Shylock, serves to accentuate his inner, passionate rage.

For, as Radford says, Shylock is one angry guy. He's also lonely and wears his bitterness like a heavy and odorous cloak -- long years of grievances against Venetian society and the Jewish community (where, apparently, he doesn't quite fit in) have poisoned his soul. Later, this culminates in him asking for a pound of the debtor's flesh in lieu of payment.

News photo
Michael Radford

Shylock might be a monster, but Radford emphasizes that the monstrosity is not without reason. One of the first scenes show a violent demonstration being carried out by the Venetian Christians right outside the walls of the ghetto; among the shouting crowd Shylock spies acquaintance Antonio (Jeremy Irons) and calls out his name. Antonio responds by spitting in Shylock's face. As the moneylender wipes off the spittle the camera pans straight into his face and we can easily guess that Antonio will be made to pay for this in one way or another.

"I don't say Shylock is wholly justified in his actions later," says Radford. "But I wanted to show that the provocation was there."

And this is what lends "The Merchant of Venice" a particularly intimate ambience. The characters are freed from the confines of Shakespearean contexts (like perpetually speaking in long Elizabethan verse). When Antonio asks Shylock for a loan to finance the courtship of his best friend, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), and the beautiful Portia (Lynn Collins), he does so quickly, in one brief sentence, and his countenance reveals the difficulty of swallowing his pride. Antonio will take this humiliation, however, and risk financial disaster because of his secret and desperate love for the young, dashing Bassanio. Shylock immediately seizes on the emotions at stake here, and the opportunity to torture Antonio. If, at the end of three months, Antonio cannot repay the loan then Shylock will remove a pound of flesh from his body. Antonio has no choice but to agree and sign the contract.

Oblivious to Antonio's inner turmoil, Bassanio is a touch too casual in his relations with the older man and accepts his funds plus words of fatherly advice almost as his due. Were the pair ever lovers? It's hard to say, but the story leaves plenty of space for speculation. In the meantime, Shylock's history is revealed in degrees as we see the various events that shaped his current personality: His wife died, he brought up his daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) with ample love and discipline, yet she has turned into a flighty woman with a mind of her own, eventually stealing her father's jewelry and eloping with a Gentile named Lorenzo (actually a good friend of Bassanio's).

Shylock's rage is a sight to behold; he seems literally on the verge of tearing Venice apart with his two hands. When it's clear that Antonio cannot make the payment, Shylock's thirst for vengeance -- not on Antonio per se but the whole of Venetian Christian society -- hits peak level. "I . . . will . . . have . . . my . . . pound . . . of . . . flesh!" Shylock chants, in such a way that it echoes like some horrid incantation.

"No doubt about it, this film belongs to Al Pacino," said Radford, who had penned the screenplay with the actor in mind. "I saw his performance in 'Richard III' and was certain he would be perfect, but the question was, will he be willing to play Shylock? So we sat and talked and Al said he had reached just the right age to change himself into Shylock with ease and confidence. I was very happy when he told me that."

Indeed, this could be Pacino's best role in years; it's rare to see him in a story large enough to contain his booming voice, the fixed intensity of his stares, the grandness of his gestures.

"The Merchant of Venice" doesn't really come across as a period film as such and displays a modern, streamlined texture -- even though Radford and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme create a gorgeously lit, multihued Venice, which is also pervaded by a dark, medieval mood.

That Radford has kept the original spirit of "Merchant of Venice" intact, while injecting a sense of urgent relevancy to the whole package seems like more than a feat of professional acumen -- it is the result of a dialogue between two artists that transcends space, culture and hundreds of years of time.

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