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    The Merchant of Venice

    None too shy Shylock

    Sometimes over-the-top, other times meticulously controlled, Al Pacino tromps triumphantly through a new version of "The Merchant of Venice."


    William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" is about a Jewish moneylender and his bond to extract a pound of flesh from the wealthy merchant Antonio, the forfeiter of a debt. The Jewish moneylender, of course, is Shylock and he is given such a towering performance by Al Pacino that even outstanding actors like Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, and Lynne Collins are relegated to secondary status. The film is set in 16th century Venice and director Michael Radford relies on setting, mood, and realism to tell its story, rejecting lavish period costumes or a modern setting with a rock score to appeal to a wider audience.

    Full title: William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.
    Written and directed by: Michael Radford.
    Adapted from the play by: William Shakespeare.
    Cast: Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, Joseph Fiennes, Lynn Collins, Zuleikha Robinson, Kris Marshall, Charlie Cox, Mackenzie Crook, Heather Goldenhersh, John Sessions.
    Cinematography: Beno”t Delhomme.
    Edited by: Lucia Zucchetti.
    Production design by: Sammy Sheldon.
    Art direction by: Sammy Sheldon.
    Costumes by: Sammy Sheldon.

    Related links: Official site
    Radford slices the play's three-hour length to a manageable 138 minutes and provides some historical background at the beginning. He tells us how Jews came to England, were subject to increasing persecution, and eventually all were expelled from England. They were forbidden to own property, could make profits only by lending money at interest, and were forced to live in a Venetian "geto," a forerunner of darker events to come. Though he spits upon Shylock in public, Antonio (Jeremy Irons) feels no shame in going to the usurer to borrow 3,000 ducats when his own funds are invested in merchant ships that are currently at sea. The money is to help his friend and suggested lover Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), who wants the money so that he can properly court Portia (Lynne Collins), a wealthy heiress. Though Shylock has been insulted by Antonio in the past, he agrees to loan the money without interest for three months on the condition that forfeiture of the bond grants him the right to exact a pound of flesh from Antonio's heart.

    The Merchant of Venice  
    The play is primarily a drama of hatred and revenge, but like many of Shakespeare's works, it has touches of broad comedy as well. Here the comedy involves three pairs of lovers: Bassanio and Portia, Gratiano, Bassanio's friend, and Nerissa, and Lorenzo, another friend of Bassanio, and Jessica, Shylock's daughter. Portia has offered herself to the person who can pick the right treasure from one of three boxes, made of gold, silver, and lead. The Prince of Morocco chooses the one of gold, the Prince of Aragon the one of silver and both are disappointed. Bassanio, however, loves her for herself and opens the leaden casket to find the portrait within. Radford's adaptation conveys a remarkable feeling for time and place and Portia's residence at Belmont suggests one of those splendid summer homes complete with immaculate gardens and art treasures hanging in every room in contrast with the grungy look of Shylock's city with its dank alleyways.

    When it becomes clear that Antonio cannot repay the debt, Bassanio returns to Venice, leaving Portia behind.

      The Merchant of Venice
    When he arrives, the loan is in default and Shylock is demanding his pound of flesh. Even when Bassanio, backed by Portia's wealth, offers many times the amount in repayment, Shylock is intent on revenge not only for the loss of the money but for a lifetime of outsider status. The duke, who sits in judgement, will not intervene as Portia enters in the guise as a lawyer to defend Antonio. It is here that the film reaches its dramatic heights as all parties come to court to achieve a final resolution.

    The story is not only about an unpaid debt but also about the estrangement of Jews from Christian society and their desire for belonging. Merchant has been one of Shakespeare's most controversial plays and analysts have debated for a long time whether it is an anti-Semitic play or simply a play that reflects the prevalent view of Christian society in Elizabethan England about the Jews. Although Shylock is definitely a caricature, he is an ambiguous figure and there are many indications that Shakespeare views his flaws as human failings, not Jewish ones. The film contains some of the most famous of Shakespeare's monologues. In "The quality of mercy is not strained," Portia tries to convince Shylock to accept three times the money he is owed not to carry out the bond.

    In the monologue, "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?", Shylock shows a universal human side, expressing the equality of all men. Though we are horrified at the sentence he wishes to carry out, we can feel his pain accumulated over the years. Pacino's performance brings new vigor to the text and his often over-the-top persona is replaced with a gentler, more understated demeanor that brings understanding to his cause. During a Toronto International Film Festival interview last September, Radford aid about Pacino, "I had to hold him back a bit, yes. But when you work with a brilliant actor, you have a great machine. It's a bit like driving a powerful car. You have to dare to do it." He has dared and won.

    JANUARY 28, 2005

    Reader comments on The Merchant of Venice:

  • M.O.V. is boring   from james, Nov 30, 2005
  • Re: M.O.V. is boring   from -, Apr 7, 2006
  • M.O.V. is boring   from james, Nov 30, 2005
  • Re: M.O.V. is boring   from Jessica, Dec 27, 2005
  • M.O.V sucks   from Stranger, Jan 10, 2006
  • M.O.V RULES!!!   from Shelley, Jan 17, 2006
  • Merchant of Venice   from DAVID, Feb 2, 2006
  • M.O.V. was wicked! Loved it!   from Sadie, Mar 5, 2006
  • [no subject]   from , Mar 12, 2006
  • [no subject]   from Jono, Mar 15, 2006
  • [no subject]   from -, Aug 24, 2006
  • M.O.V .......................   from Chris, Sep 12, 2006
  • not so bad   from um-e-hani, Oct 15, 2006
  • [no subject]   from kiwa, Apr 20, 2007
  • Great Movie   from jo poe, Oct 18, 2007
  • Merchant of Venice   from felix, Sep 13, 2011

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