Saturday, August 04, 2007


THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (2004, USA/UK, Michael Radford, play by William Shakespeare)
Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

Director Michael Radford's MERCHANT OF VENICE is a gift. Since the Holocaust, to present this brilliant, challenging play about Jew-hating Christians and hateful Jewish caricatures is to invoke controversy, inviting accusations of aiding and abetting gross anti-Semitism. Just ask the artistic director of your local Shakespeare festival.

But to avoid the play simply because it makes us uncomfortable is unthinkable. That's what art is for. MERCHANT offers a complex and confounding window not only into our proclivity to mix racism and religion, but also into love and greed, mercy and justice, the contradictions of the human heart. Radford and his cast have created a MERCHANT for our day, grounded in the sensibilities of Shakespeare's.

The first image we see, centre-screen, is a cross, mounted at the stern of a boat that carries a Jew-hating cleric, haranguing listeners with Old Testament scriptures calling for death to usurers. In 1594, intolerance of Jews was a fact of life, and money-lending (at interest) violated the "Christian" law. While sophisticated Venetians turned a blind eye, "religious fanatics" used these laws to oppress Jews who, confined to ghettos by night and forbidden property ownership, resorted to money-lending as a means of survival.

One Jew, marked by a red cap as inescapably as his great-grandchildren would be by yellow stars, is taunted by a mob and thrown from a bridge. Another, Shylock, calls out to a passerby in what seems a plea for compassion. Antonio turns and spits on him. Clearly this production won't be soft-pedalling the anti-Semitism of its characters.

We're five minutes into the film before hearing the first line of Shakespeare's text. By the time Antonio finally utters the intriguing, portentous, inexplicable (and ultimately unexplained) words, "In sooth I know not why I am so sad," I couldn't help but wonder if his sorrow might be that of a soul divided, if his hatred toward Shylock might not have begun to leaven the whole loaf.

The puzzle of Antonio is the play's great conundrum and challenge. Loathing the gross racism of Saliano and Salarino, we comfort ourselves that we are not like them. But Antonio isn't like them either. He's greatly respected for his wealth and success (he is the merchant of the title), but he is also a man of honour and reputation, who would sacrifice himself for a friend – quite literally, should occasion demand. We would say he is a man of integrity, but for the terrible flaw we cannot integrate. Jeremy Irons' nuanced, insightful and carefully balanced characterization goes further, subtly suggesting that Antonio's grief may also have roots in a "love that dare not speak it's name": a man of status and conscience, he can give no expression to an affection he feels for Bassanio beyond mere comradeship.

It's a good thing Irons' Antonio is so strong, so fascinating: there's always the risk that Shylock will steal the show, and here Al Pacino offers what may be the performance of a lifetime (with all due respect to Michael Corleone).

For folks whose memories don't go back enough decades, who think of Al Pacino as a good but limited actor that mostly sticks to a pretty decent Al Pacino imitation – crooks and the occasional cop – this film ought to be a revelation. Pacino reminds us that he is not just good but great, a performer of true genius who can dominate the screen, or an entire film. Forgetting his Looking For Richard, we don't expect American screen actors to fulfill the demands of Shakespearean text, yet every image and metaphor is alive, every intention both precise and visceral. He is up to every demand of the script: one line he breaks your heart, the next he turns your stomach.

Pacino shapes the role masterfully, completely establishing our empathy for an isolated man of feeling and principle (Antonio's mirror image) before launching himself headlong into the character's sickening descent into hatred, avarice and revenge. The actor not only rises to the role's extremes of villainous melodrama, he fills them, rendering them both theatrical and believable. Libby Appel once said there's no such thing as over-acting: there's true acting and there's false acting, that's all, however large or small. This acting is true, and you won't see better.

Joseph Fiennes creates an exceptional Bassanio, a lover both forceful and flawed, heroic but human. Lynn Collins' Portia is stunning, not only gloriously beautiful but brilliant and self-possessed – ultimately, the play's driving force. How else is our interest kept once the duelling merchants leave the stage? She has all the appeal of Shrew's Kate, without the hard-to-swallow capitulation at the end. The agonizingly protracted trial is as taut, tense and dangerous as any courtroom scene anywhere, and Portia's centrepiece appeal for mercy stopped me from breathing. As conflicted as we may be about the play's unnerving – and perhaps unknowing – anti-Semitism, as galled as we may be by its questionable conversions, the core of it all is the core of the gospel, untainted: the exaltation of mercy over justice. This film flinches from neither the shameful nor the transcendent. They coexist in dazzling, confusing juxtaposition, the confounding tensions and contradictions lending the story both its controversy and its artistry.

This Merchant's Venice is exotic but real, mired in dirty, bloody specifics that contrast wondrously with its fairy-tale vision of Belmont. There's dreadful power in setting the "pound of flesh" negotiations at a Jewish meat-market: a goat is bled into the canal presaging the bargain's ultimate resolution, bringing the deeper realization that bloody meat just isn't kosher. Red wax drains onto the contract like blood to seal the deal.

The film is rich with interconnections and juxtapositions. Jessica's father gives her keys to lock herself away from her suitors: we cut directly to the keys Portia's father decreed should divine her true husband. And how about the beautifully foregrounded detail about Jessica's ring – on whose evidence do we believe that monkey story, after all? I marveled at the way it humanized Shylock all the more, connecting his history with the young lovers' courtship, finally resonating in those haunting and cryptic closing images.

Critics and audiences will agonize and argue over this potent rendering of a play so problematic to 21st century eyes. Some will question whether the film should have been made. Perhaps the anti-Semitism isn't simply a character flaw, but a failure of both play and playwright. And it's not just Jews who will feel shamed, threatened and misunderstood by this story: Christians too may feel like targets, wondering if we really need another movieful of bigoted, self-righteous "true believer" caricatures. The fact is, nobody comes off looking good here: all fall short of the glory of God. Maybe even the Bard himself.

I'm glad to see these battles rejoined, glad these questions will again be talked about, felt about, fought about. The long and terrible history of enmity between Christians and Jews leaves a legacy of guilt and unforgiveness and judgement. Perhaps this time, in at least a few of those arguments, Portia's plea will win out: our insistence on law and just recompense will give way, and Jesus' great prayer will at last teach us to render the deeds of mercy.

Available at Videomatica

Originally published at Christianity Today Movies

1 comment:

Joseph said...

I really liked this film when I saw it last Summer. I'd just read it the previous semester in college and thought that the film did it great justice. And what great actors were in this.