Passion never served cut-and-dried anti-Semitism, since Mel Gibson's film included positive Jewish characters amid the masses of heavy-handed Hebrew bad guys. Merchant finished principle photography at roughly the same time as Passion's U.S. release, and the film provides an unintended yet eloquent rebuke to Gibson's one-dimensional Jewish villains.
Director/adaptor Michael Radford puts Shakespeare's troubling portrayal of Jewishness in the context of 16th-century Venice, an anti-Semitic society not far removed from Shakespeare's own London. Radford brings nothing to Merchant that the text can't support, and while he can't elevate the play's airy comedy to the level of Shylock's fiery drama, he oversees one of the wisest and least jokey Shakespearean film comedies.
Merchant's opening titles describe how Jews were vilified and literally ghettoized in Venice. Drawing on events mentioned in both the play and history books, Radford provides a prologue of Jewish persecution: Copies of the Torah go up in flames as thundering clerics brandish crucifixes and onlookers shout epithets. Moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino) looks to merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons) for support, but the otherwise noble gentile spits at him - a gesture horrifying to our sensibilities, yet sadly typical of the place and time.
Merchant's title character, the melancholy Antonio, doesn't dwell on the consequences of that action. He's more fixated on lordly young Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), who wants to borrow money to woo wealthy Portia (Lynn Collins). When Antonio offers to bankroll his younger friend, Merchant implies that Antonio suffers from unrequited love for Bassanio. At one point, the younger man gives Antonio an affectionate, comradely kiss, but Irons' eyes suggest a longing deeper than friendship.
Shylock offers to loan Antonio 3,000 ducats with no interest - provided that Antonio forfeit a pound of flesh if he reneges on the deal. Pacino never makes Shylock a portrait of blind avarice, and in the early scenes he seems to enjoy rhetorically sparring with Antonio and Bassanio, like a rabbi giving a Socratic lesson to his pupils. At home with his comely daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson), Shylock sounds rueful and glum, not simmering with rage, when he talks about living among "Christian fools."
But the tipping point comes when Jessica elopes - with a Christian - and takes a small fortune of Shylock's money. When Shylock rages against Jessica's spendthrift ways, Pacino plays not the usurer's greed but the father's grief at his daughter's betrayal. You can imagine that if Jessica never left, Shylock would have let Antonio off the hook when he defaults on the loan. Instead, Shylock brings a lifetime's worth of genuine grievances on Antonio: "The villainy you teach me I will execute," he tells a Christian gentleman.
Pacino doesn't exactly restrain himself: At times you expect his gaze to leave scorch marks. But like his Roy Cohn in Angels in America, the actor dials back his tendencies to barking excesses and builds gradually up to the intense emoting. When Shylock confronts Antonio in the taut courtroom scene, Pacino brings the homicidal role a kind of integrity, a willingness to demand his rights in the face of an entire society's hostility.
Shakespeare's comedy persuasively becomes Shylock's tragedy, and we empathize with Pacino's character, who ultimately becomes the instrument of his own destruction. Yet when Portia, disguised as a young doctor of law, argues, "The quality of mercy is not strained," she's clearly speaking of Christian mercy, in sharp contrast to Shylock's eye-for-an-eye values. Shylock may deserve his unhappy fate, yet his example exposes the prejudices and hypocrisies of Venetian society.
Alas, when Shylock's not around, Merchant provides only a few inconsequential love stories. Bassanio's courtship of Portia hinges on whether he can solve a riddle involving caskets of gold, silver and lead, while the play ends with a trifling bit of comedy over misplaced rings and love oaths. The business with the rings and caskets at least provides a neat counterpoint to the pound-of-flesh plot: Throughout the text Shakespeare pits "value" against "price," and intangible ideals against material objects.
Otherwise, Merchant's romantic subplots amount to watching attractive people recite splendid words. Collins certainly lives up to Portia's nature as a vivacious, cunning life force and the play's only role as complex and deeply alive as Shylock himself. Radford's Merchant of Venice can't sail over the play's historic stumbling blocks, but it nevertheless builds a stage for the richest, most satisfying Shylock imaginable. Though the villain of the piece, Shylock emerges as more than just an "evil Jew," but a wronged, impassioned personality who warrants more than simply being dismissed or demonized.
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