THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
 

Directed by Michael Radford. 2004.


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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 fade into the background. 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 rock music to appeal to a wider audience. 

Radford slices the play's three-hour length to a manageable two hours and eight minutes and also provides some historical background. In the opening narration, he tells us how Jews came to England, were subject to increasing persecution, and eventually 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. In the film, the merchant Antonio (Jeremy Irons) spits upon Shylock in public, yet feels no shame in going to the usurer to borrow 3000 ducats to help his friend and suggested lover Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) to properly court Portia (Lynne Collins), a wealthy heiress. Though Shylock has been insulted by Antonio, 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 play is primarily a drama of hatred and revenge, but like many of Shakespeare's works there are 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. Portia's residence at Belmont suggests one of those splendid summer homes complete with immaculate gardens and art treasures hanging in every room and contrasts well 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. 
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 Merchant of Venice is not only about an unpaid debt but also about the estrangement of Jews from Christian society and their desire for belonging. It 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 about anti-Semitism that reflects the prevalent view of Christian society in Elizabethan England. 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 Duke recognizes that he is simply a man who has failed to adhere to the compassionate language of the Torah.

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 humanity, 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 said about Pacino, "…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 we are all the beneficiaries.

GRADE: A-
 

Howard Schumann
 
 
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