Film— The Merchant Of Venice (R)

William Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice

by Amy Diaz

Al Pacino laughs if you tickle him, bleeds if you prick him and chews the scenery any chance he gets as the unfortunate, stereotype-tastic Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

It is an interesting testament to the lack of popularity of The Merchant of Venice that it needs to be prefaced with “William Shakespeare.” Like we might think it’s Tom Clancy’s The  Merchant of Venice or John Grisham’s The Merchant of Venice. There is, perhaps, a reason that Venice needs this preface. Though Mr. Shakespeare wrote about betrayal, questionable parent-child relationships and lots and lots of murder, The Merchant of Venice is by far the Bard’s most squirm-inducing play. Because, in the end, this play is not so fond of the Jews. And, frankly, I have a hard time feeling friendly toward the anti-Semitic. Perhaps you do, too. Perhaps you’ve decided you’re not so much with The Merchant of Venice.

Or maybe you’re of the other mindset, the one that says this play can, in fact, be anti-anti-Semitic. That it’s all about the Message — the one set forth in Shylock’s big scene with the “if you prick us do we not bleed” speech and his constant plea for justice. Certainly, this version of the play tries to be as sympathetic and as non-icky as possible. Jews in 16th-century Venice have been crammed into the ghetto, forbidden to do most of the things that gain one wealth, thus encouraged them to go into money lending, and they are forced to wear red hats so that other Venetians know who to kick when they need to mindlessly take out aggression (a nice little reminder, by the way, that the Germans weren’t alone in being fans of this sort of thing).

Shylock (Pacino) ekes out his living by charging interest on loans. And, hey, Antonio (Jeremy Irons) needs a loan. Why? Well, in this particularly fun version of the play it’s to give his former, perhaps, gay lover, maybe, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) the spending power to woo the lovely orphaned-and-therefore-wealthy Portia (Lynn Collins). Bassanio sees in her a big payday in a pretty package — a nice thing for him because he’s squandered his wealth and run through most of Antonio’s extra cash as well. Antonio has the bulk of his money all tied up in shipping — which means that he could make a bundle from exotic items coming in to Venice from exotic ports or he could see his entire fortune sink into the sea; which way do you think it will pan out?

So, Bassanio and Antonio head to Shylock to outfit Bassanio for some high-stakes playa action. But, there’s a hiccup. Shylock isn’t so fond of Antonio, what with the fact that this Venetian has spit on and otherwise insulted his Hebraic countrymen. Shylock, who is, I think one can say, a little petty, decides to stick it to Antonio (hey, who wouldn’t?). After, essentially, giving him a hard time in iambic pentameter, Shylock gives Antonio his cash but, instead of backing it up with one of Antonio’s doomed boats or his collection of chest-baring outfits, Shylock wants Antonio to secure the debt with a pound of his own flesh.

Nice touch, I think. If you feel you’ve been treated as something less then human, why not respond in kind?

Antonio’s all, whatever, you funny little man, I can so pay you back. Meanwhile, Bassanio’s other friend Lorenzo (Charlie Cox) is wooing Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson). She’s completely taken with the lusty Italian and so she decides to heck with tradition, she’s going to marry Lorenzo and convert to Christianity.

Technically, the one thing (Antonio and his flesh) has very little to do with the other (Jessica and her girl-in-love stupidity). But when Antonio’s boats sink — thus preventing him from being able to pay Shylock off — around the same time Jessica elopes, Shylock, basically, flips out. He decides that enough is enough, someone owes him some pain and he decides to call in Antonio’s bond.

Meanwhile, Bassanio romances, briefly, and wins Portia in a highly uninteresting subplot that ends up with her dressing up like a boy and heading to Venice for the big courtroom scene at the end of the movie.

Shylock is, even in this most tender of versions, played about as cliché as possible. Pacino even gives him a bit of an Eastern European accent, which I don’t know enough history of migration to pick apart, but which feels jarring — no need to gild the lily of this caricature with borsht belt inflection. Also, it’s Pacino so while the performance is good, it isn’t even remotely what I’d call subtle.

Having said that, the movie is interesting for the way that it winds up with us really not liking a single character. Antonio is, early on, established as sort of a pantywaist. Bassanio is a weasel. Portia eventually realizes he’s a weasel but stays with him anyway. Shylock is destroyed and rather pathetic and Jessica is left staring into the Mediterranean wondering what the hell she’s gotten herself into. The play, more or less well executed here, is unsettling and we are left, well, unsettled.

Not a must-see part of the Shakespeare-on-film cannon, William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is really more of an entertaining lit major’s intellectual exercise.

- Amy Diaz

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