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A daring attempt at a problematic play


The first theatrical film of The Merchant of Venice, which took so long to arrive here it might well have been transported by gondola, reminds us of the difficulties accompanying the production of a volatile and controversial work in our time.

Whatever its merits, over the span of centuries, and especially in an age that can never forget the genocide of the 20th century, Shakespeare's puzzling and problematic comedy appears increasingly cruel, dark, and of course, as everyone realizes, quite blatantly and uncomfortably anti-Semitic. To turn the play into a movie required not only a talented cast and stunning cinematography, but in view of its subject, a certain amount of daring on the part of the screenwriter-director, Michael Radford.

Like every director interpreting any Shakespeare play for the screen, except perhaps the tiresome and literal Kenneth Branagh, Radford cuts a considerable amount of material from the original work. Although the film retains the basic situation, characters, and plot, it also omits a great many speeches and drastically reduces the function and importance of a number of roles. The picture nicely handles the play's structure and movement, but simply neglects the several complications of the play, perhaps necessarily simplifying the action, but as a result flattening its emotional and intellectual impact.

Despite the general viciousness of its depiction of the Jewish moneylender Shylock (the more literary Mafiosi now use the term for loan sharks), the play mixes all sorts of fairytale elements in its several plots. Shylock's agreement to lend money to the merchant Antonio on the condition that he pledge a pound of his flesh recalls all those stories of foolish promises made to malevolent dwarfs and scheming witches, while the will that requires Portia's suitors to choose among three caskets to win her hand derives from the tests and trials of hundreds of other myths and legends, as well as the long comic tradition of parents attempting to control the sex life of their children.

In addition to the whimsy of those plots, the play (and the movie) also naturally show the usual uneven course of romantic love. The beautiful Portia (Lynn Collins) must pray that all her inappropriate suitors choose the wrong caskets and that Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes),whom she loves, picks the right one; in addition, in the famous trial scene, she must argue the case against Shylock (Al Pacino) taking his pound of flesh from Antonio (Jeremy Irons). Two other love stories, including a romance between a Venetian and Shylock's daughter also reach their appropriate fulfillment, thus guaranteeing the necessary comic triumph of the young over the old, children over parents.

Whether because of Shakespeare's genius or the director's ingenuity, the movie seldom exhibits the usual appearance of a filmed play, but moves its camera all over Venice without any sense of staginess or artifice. Shakespeare himself provides the basis for a great deal of crosscutting between the various love stories, the casket choices, and some minor comic material, which creates and maintains a lively pace. The movie almost never slows down to show off a particular speech or actor, and some of the minor characters shine for a brief moment or two.

Aside from the gorgeous cinematography, the most complex and profound emotions in the play grow out of the character of Shylock, whom Pacino turns into an almost tragic figure. His hint of an Eastern European accent, contrasting with the clipped upper-class British intonations of Joseph Fiennes and Jeremy Irons, his hunched posture, his shambling walk, his apparently offhand delivery of some important lines, powerfully distinguishes the character from his antagonists.

The virtual elimination of most of Shakespeare's broad comedy and the diminution of Antonio and Bassanio's lines underline the dark pathos of the despised and ultimately ostracized figure, who through legal trickery loses his fortune, his daughter, and his faith at the hands of the purportedly righteous Christians.

Because Pacino so dominates his scenes, other people, especially his adversary Antonio, who may deserve better, virtually disappear. The polite, well bred, and aristocratic manner of both Irons, an especially passive actor anyway, and Fiennes, who seems just a bit too cute and winsome, simply cannot stand up to the magnetic presence of Pacino, who can sweep them off the screen with a hoarse word, a glance, a simple gesture; he leaves them very little to do except to try to behave themselves in the presence of an actor whose virility almost overwhelms them.

The play and the picture remain problematic, but Radford contrives to show how well Shakespeare writes for the screen and how fluidly his work adapts to the camera. The Venetian setting, the cinematography, and the performance of Al Pacino constitute the most compelling elements of a movie that displays a good deal of unevenness as well as considerable courage.

The Merchant of Venice (R), starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson, Kris Marshall, Charlie Cox, Mackenzie Crook, Heather Goldenhersh, John Sessions, Gregor Fisher; screenplay by Michael Radford, based on the play by William Shakespeare; directed by Michael Radford. Little Theatre