Saturday, April 24, 2010
Al Pacino's Sad-Dad Eyes
Pacino wasn't really Shylock, he was Pacino playing Shylock, but it still kind of worked. Before I go any further, however, I have to fess up about something that completely colored my viewing of this film. Al Pacino with a beard is a dead ringer for my dad. For real, it was freaky. He's got those same sad Italian eyes, and, unfortunately, that same east coast accent. For this film, he kind of gave it a foreign lilt, but it still sounded faintly Lower Manhattan, or maybe East Boston (where my dad grew up). This film really plays up the father-daughter drama, so that kind of weirded me out, too. Many women of Italian-American heritage have ambivalent relationships with their fathers--it's that Catholic, patriarchal culture, I guess--and I'm no exception. So it was pretty wrenching to see Shylock tear up (which he did a lot in the movie) and run around wailing after Jessica leaves. Also, the movie makes Jessica herself more ambivalent about her betrayal of her dad. The very last scene has Jess looking out into the distance, and then at her mother's turquoise ring, which, as the film would have it, she didn't trade for a monkey. That, apparently, was just a rumor, which gives the whole thing--Shylock's rage, Jessica's indifference--a completely different spin. Tubal tells Shylock about the monkey-trade, you see it in Shylock's imagination, but clearly it's just a reflection of what the Jewish community thinks about Christians: they're indifferent to history, mindlessly acquisitive, prodigal in their recreations.
Yeah, you could say that movie played a part in my family mythology...but we won't go there today.
Okay, I do. But this is a film, not a play. It's visual medium, and words are necessarily secondary. Even without the fabulous poetry, it's still a great story.
A lot of interpretation is possible in film, and this one definitely takes a strong stand on several issues that are only implicit in the original text. I mentioned the liberties the director took with the Shylock/Jessica pathos. He also does a lot of "filling in the blanks" on the homoerotic front. Antonio is unambiguously in love with Bassanio. And Bassanio, while perhaps not as passionate about it as Tony, has obviously not discouraged the sentiments. During Antonio's Act 1 speech about melancholy, he's looking out the window and sees Bassanio arriving, looking young and delectably full of life. Totally hot, in a velvety Renaissance sort of way. Antonio's buddies suggest he's in love, and he protests way too vociferously. As he's gazing longingly out the window.
When Bassanio shows up to ask his friend for a loan, they have their discussion in...you guessed it, Tony's bedroom! And Bassanio lounges on the bed invitingly as he's making his pitch. Then, after Antonio promises to help him--pain etched in every sad line of his face--B. kisses him goodbye. A for-real kiss, not a dry peck.
Playing up the homoerotic hints in the play really works on the screen. It gives the story more psychological--and less philosophical--weight, and thus makes it more modern. Abstract ideas like justice are hard to translate into pictures. Unrequited love and father-daughter pathos are easy, because you can see emotions pretty clearly in camera close-ups. We're not much for abstractions these days, or larger ethical dilemmas. We like feelings, not ideas. Pictures, not words.
We also like simple moral oppositions, and we get lots of those here, too. The movie starts with a little visual history of Renaissance anti-Semitism. Venetian Jews are stigmatized, ghettoized, and even lynched by religious fanatics in the first few minutes of the film. The most gripping image in those first few minutes is that of a lock clanging shut on the gates of the Jewish ghetto/prison. So we're set up to be on Shylock's side from the beginning. Combine that with lots of extended shots of Al/Shylock staring mournfully into the distance, missing the camera's eye--and thus, ours--by only a few feet, and you have a pretty simple morality play.
The excessiveness of the Christian contingent is extravagantly represented by Portia's lavish estate. She owns a whole island, which her suitors row across to--sort of Mystic Isle of Avalon meets Balmoral Castle. The mansion would put any royal palace to shame, and the gardens make Versailles look modest. Portia herself (played someone named Lynn Collins, whom I'd never heard of) is pretty in a Jane Austenish way, Nerissa only slightly less so, as befits a best friend. The movie really plays up the horror of the courtroom scene, so when the Venetians retreat to Belmont afterward for the Return to Romance ending, they seem superficial and soulless.
There are some sensationalizing moments--the aforementioned lynching, for example. When Bassanio seeks out Shylock with the intention of asking for a loan, he finds him slaughtering a lamb. Very graphically. I'm pretty squeamish about animal cruelty, so I had to look away. But in that small, visually arresting scene, we can see all of the play's sheep/lamb imagery sort of compressed into one violent moment.
I know. Dullsville.
The courtroom scene is the heart of the film, as it is in the play. It really lets Pacino do his moral outrage thing, a la And Justice For All--when Shylock says "Fie upon your law!" (a line that isn't in the play), I couldn't help but hear a younger Al yelling "You're out of order! The whole court is out of order!"
That's the problem with famous actors playing (more) famous roles--their resumes tend to get in the way of the performance.
Bassanio, I should point out, is played by Joseph Fiennes--the same guy who played the neurotic Will in the popular, Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. I have to confess I really disliked that movie. There was something annoyingly smug about it. And I guess the imagined private lives of my favorite authors just don't interest me much.
I'm in the minority, I realize. More on this in the future, when I tackle the messy Authorship Question.
Anyway, the courtroom scene is set up like a rowdy football (soccer) match, with the Christian and Jewish contingents yelling at one another, and lots of unpleasant cheering when Shylock gets his come-uppance. Portia-as-Balthasar looked pretty good (see pic), but totally sounded like a woman. This reminded me of a funny thing in the play. When Portia gets back from her fake lawyer gig, Lorenzo hears her before he sees her. And recognizes her voice! "That is the voice," he says, "or I am much deceived, of Portia."
I dig the little goatee.
Ms. Collins, as I pointed out earlier, doesn't really get Shakespeare--her Portia looks great, and is clever-seeming, but there's something missing there. The "Quality of Mercy" speech sounds like she's reading it before her high school class--but really, it's so cliched that it's hard to make it sound fresh, I think. Like about a third of Hamlet's speeches. She completely misreads--or mis-speaks--the "tarry a little" part. That should be said with deadly quiet. I about jumped off the couch when she shouted it at the top of her lungs.
But the most moving moments in the film are Shylock's. He crumbles with admirable restraint (for Pacino) when he realizes he's lost the case, and everything else that matters to him. At the end, he's broken and so alone it makes you want to cry. Even if you never cry at movies.
The Venetians retreat to Belmont to forget what bastards they've been. Jessica is subdued, and we later find out why. The "ring game" between the Belmont women and their men seems hollow, and not at all funny. In a pretty big deviation from the play, Antonio never gets his money back. He ends up solitary and excluded at the end, too--and we last see him fishing on Belmont Lake (or whatever it's called), all alone as the happy couples consummate their nuptials. From a modern perspective, he's as alien as Shylock. The Jew and the gay man, left out of the happy Christian-hetero ending. Jess is there, too, looking out over the lake and twisting her mother's ring around her finger. Missing her dad.
I'm still choked up.
The most important thing you can say about this film is that it is in no way a comedy. Nothing funny about it at all. It's tragic, in the way Othello is tragic. That is to say, a modern way. It's a tragedy of a man so oppressed by history, by hypocrisy and bigotry, that he loses his own humanity. It's about the banality of evil (yeah, I know some people hate that phrase, but I think it's because they hate Hannah Arendt), and the ways people can justify just about anything to themselves. It's about the stuff that's left over when all those justifications and exclusions have been nicely knit up and agreed upon.
So, I guess my assessment would be this. The movie isn't Shakespeare--and not only because of the language. It's erased all the ambivalence and irony that inhabits The Merchant. But it's still entertaining on its own terms. And it looks gorgeous. Venice without the reek! I guess one could make an analogy there--the film has cleansed the play of the stink of equivocation...
Well, that's all I have to say about that. I think I'll go call my dad now.