Pound of flesh

Al Pacino’s Scarface<i> is barely visible in </i>The Merchant of Venice<i>.</i>

Al Pacino’s Scarface is barely visible in The Merchant of Venice.

Rated 4.0

Anti-Semitism was a prominent social denominator of 16th-century Europe, and discrimination thrived even in what was considered to be a liberal Venice, Italy, circa 1596. Jews were forced to live within a gated area of the city referred to as the “geto”; a Christian would duly lock the gate each night to segregate the populace. By day, the gate was left unlocked. Jews could venture into the rest of the city if they wore the required red hat but were forbidden to own property. In this environment, many Jewish males became moneylenders who exacted exorbitant interest rates from their customers. These money matters turn grim and provocative indeed, as the interest for one such loan in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice becomes a pound of human flesh.

Controversy about whether Shakespeare’s play is just as much racist as it is about racism is still alive today. Although filmmakers have not wrestled with the play’s problematic content since the silent era, director Michael Radford (Il Postino) has now adapted the Bard’s text into a potent morality tale in which persecution, intolerance, envy and want become a fertile breeding ground for societal cancer. Radford has edited but not rewritten Shakespeare’s dialogue. This may rankle Shakespearean purists still, but the sculpting of dialogue and the addition of a prologue do not forsake the original source, but rather make the themes more accessible without trivializing them.

Radford and company immerse us in the past with painterly detail and grunge aesthetics. The film emanates the stench and spirit of the era as human contracts, driven by both hate and love, are explored in terms of origin, agenda and tainted final value. The calculated density of Shakespeare’s words may be the star here, but the crew and cast fully complement this tromp through tragedy, comedy and drama. I found one plot conceit hard to digest but was thoroughly intrigued by the slow blossom of characters, themes and suspense.

The Merchant of Venice basically follows the interactions of Christian merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons) and his younger nobleman compatriot Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) with the Jewish moneylender Shylock (Al Pacino). The fair damsel Portia (Lynn Collins) is entertaining suitors from all over the world in her distant kingdom. Bassanio needs money to travel to her and solve a riddle left by her deceased father that will free her hand in matrimony.

Antonio has his current export-import fortune tied up in three ships at sea, so he borrows the money from Shylock. The agreement is that no interest will be charged but that Shylock can claim a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he forfeits on the loan. The merits of this contract are compellingly debated and then legally tested in court as Shylock is alternately exposed as loathsome and sympathetic, and as villain and victim.

Pacino, his eyes smoldering behind constant, anxious movement, is the personification of indignation, pain and revenge. Irons is perfectly pitched as the weary businessman who may have more than a platonic interest in the penniless Bassanio, who is given a solid but less memorable reading by Fiennes. And Collins is every inch and sultry breath the woman of many men’s desire, whose eyes radiate speechless messages and who surveys her suitors with licks of sharp humor (“I would do anything rather than be married to a sponge,” she says of one drunken aristocrat).

In The Merchant of Venice, the world is portrayed as a stage where each man must play his role, one man is chided for speaking infinitely of nothing, and the purse is more like a body part to some people than a fashion accessory. It is a visit to an Old World Europe in which culture clashes, a perverted sense of justice, lavish lifestyles, sexuality, suffering, betrayal, redemption and romance resonate with modern relevance. Men are asked ironically to show more mercy than they themselves deserve, and, even more importantly, the Christian example is seen for its capacity to spread some very real villainy of its own.