Movie Review 2008 #26: The Merchant of Venice

A recent adaptation of the Shakespeare play, with Al Pacino as Shylock, and also starring Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes.

The Merchant of Venice is a difficult play, and the reason is the character of Shylock, really the center of the film.
Is the play anti-semitic? Is Shakespeare indulging in the attitudes prevalent at the time? Is it an enlightened play, showing how Shylock is driven to his actions and attitudes because of the environment in which he must dwell?
For that reason, its not as popular a play as other works by the Bard, and so this recent movie adaptation is a chance to see it and see what and how a director and cast interpret the material.
I was not disappointed.
Michael Radford (who directed Il Postino) seems to take the view that the play is really an indictment of anti-semitism and the consequences to what it leads to. This is highlighted by Pacino’s portrayal of Shylock. We see him early on, spat on and treated foully by the citizens of Venice. When Irons’ Antonio stakes a loan to Shylock on behalf of his friend Bassiano (Fiennes) so that he can win the heart of Portia, we feel sympathy for Shylock. Here, because he has to make a living, is in the position of loaning money to a man who just treated him like dirt just days ago.
And so when Shylock sets his awful terms (a pound of flesh) if the loan is defaulted, Shylock’s attempt at revenge makes him seem less like a common criminal than someone who is trying to “fight the system.”
Aside from the powerful portrayal by Pacino, the rest of the actors and the players do a decent, if not spectacular job. I found Portia and the suitors to be a middling subplot. I didn’t buy how Portia and Bassiano fall for each other, though. And while Irons is a great actor, he seems of the wrong generation to be the best buddy of Bassiano to put up the stake of his own flesh to begin with.
The movie is filmed beautifully, evoking nicely the setting of early 16th century Venice. Radford does a good job with the cinematography and knowing when to show us the grandeur of spaces, and when to focus and let the actors fill up the screen.
Still, to see Pacino eat up the screen as a Shylock who knows he deserves better than what Venetian society is giving him made the movie worthwhile to see. Sure, Shylock gets his comeuppance as per the play, but until and when he does, we can see that Pacino as Shylock has made his point, in full.