Pacino Adds Depth to ‘Merchant’ Villain


There is little doubt that the first film version of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” will find its detractors.

Literary purists may be horrified by liberties taken by director-screenwriter Michael Radford, including a 50-minute cut in the play’s original three-hour length.

Champions of family values may object to the rather obvious homosexual relationship between Venetian noblemen Antonio (Jeremy Irons) and Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes).

And Jews may wonder what good is served, in this day and age, by reviving the most famous anti-Semitic stereotype in Western culture.

Yet this is a movie well-worth seeing for the fine performances of its Anglo-American cast, its colorful, teeming recreation of 16th century Venice and, most, for the complex and heart-wrenching portrait of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, evoked by Al Pacino.

I first encountered “The Merchant of Venice” in 1939 as a brand new immigrant and sole Jew in an eighth-grade class at Lower Merion Junior High School, outside Philadelphia, and the traumatic impact has stayed with me since.

For those who were deprived of this experience — and of the visceral American anti-Semitism of that time — here’s a brief refresher on the plot line.

In the Venice of 1594, then the most powerful and liberal city-state in Europe, the profligate young Bassanio needs money to woo and marry the lovely and accomplished Portia. He turns to his older friend, the merchant Antonio, who, temporarily short of cash, asks Shylock to lend him 3,000 ducats. The moneylender, who has been consistently humiliated by Antonio, demands no interest but instead a pound of flesh should the merchant not repay the debt on time.

When Antonio defaults, Shylock appears before the duke to execute the penalty but is foiled by Portia, disguised as a young lawyer, who turns the tables on Shylock. He leaves the scene as a broken man, the more so since his daughter, Jessica, has run off with a Christian, taking along much of her father’s fortune.

A New Yorker cartoon in the 1940s showed Hitler bestowing a Nazi medal on Shakespeare for writing the play, but as times have changed, so has the villainous caricature of Shylock.

Nevertheless, to make a film of so embedded a stereotype is a challenge, as even the daring Orson Welles learned when he had to abandon an identical project.

In the present case, director Radford and his cast have done well. On a technical level, the intimacy of the camera conveys facial closeups and character expressions not perceived in a stage play, while the beauty and bustle of Venice form a handsome backdrop.

While it would be condescending to label the film as politically correct, a great deal of care has been taken to place Shylock within the context of his time and place.

An on-screen prologue, accompanied by an elegiac Hebrew melody and the burning of prayer books, explains that Venetian Jews were confined to a district containing a cannon foundry (“getto” in Italian), restricted to the occupation of money-lending, forced to wear a distinctive red hat and were frequently brutalized.

In the very first scene, Shylock civilly greets Antonio in a market square, who responds by spitting in Shylock’s face.

But ultimately, it is the talent of Pacino (who played another reviled Jew, Roy Cohn of McCarthy infamy, in HBO’s “Angels in America”) who elevates Shylock from a two-dimensional, vengeful villain to a fully fleshed, tortured and humiliated human being.

In the classic monologue, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” to the closing, “The villainy you teach me I will execute,” Pacino conveys centuries of hurt and persecution.

And in the final scene, a distraught, impoverished Shylock, forced to convert to Christianity, stands bareheaded outside a synagogue — as always, the eternal outsider.

“The Merchant of Venice” opens at theaters nationwide on Dec. 29.