With a blood-drained Passion of the Christ back in movie theaters just in time for Easter, it seems like a highly appropriate time to take another look at The Merchant of Venice, which, unbeknownst to me, hasn't appeared on the silver screen since the silent era. Did I say it seems like a highly appropriate time? I meant it seems like a highly inappropriate time. Or maybe it's both. One year later, the debate about Mel Gibson's depiction of the role played by Jews in Jesus' death appears to have cooled down. But the debate about William Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who demands a pound of flesh as payment for a debt, flares up every time the play is performed. How do you make such a man sympathetic?
Well, you start by hiring Al Pacino to play him. In Michael Radford's streamlined version of Shakespeare's tragic comedy, Pacino presents a Shylock more sinned against than sinning. Called a dog and spat upon by the very man (Jeremy Irons as a perhaps too melancholy Antonio) who then turns around and asks to borrow a large sum of money, Pacino's Shylock is mad for revenge. And when his daughter runs off with a Christian, presaging his own forced conversion, there seems to be no room in his heart for mercy. But Pacino, holding something in reserve until his 'Hath not a Jew' speech, shows us the love and compassion that Shylock might have been capable of ' not a dog, but a man who's been kicked so many times he now snarls at strangers.
When Shylock's not around, The Merchant of Venice goes about the business of being a romantic comedy, with Joseph Fiennes' Bassanio wooing Lynn Collins' Portia, but Radford seems almost afraid to crack a joke, as if such frivolity might itself be construed as anti-Semitic. Stephen Greenblatt, author of last year's Will in the World, argues that Shakespeare both wanted us to laugh at Shylock and wanted the laughter to get stuck in our throats ' a tricky thing to pull off, not that Radford has tried. He's mounted a very handsome production, though. The Venetian interiors, all ambers and umbers, have the glossy varnish of Renaissance paintings. And another thing to be thankful for: Not an ounce of blood is spilled, nor a pound of flesh extracted.