The Merchant of Venice – Michael Ratford
This is a cinematic adaptation of the Shakespearian classic. Unlike contemporary movies on other books like Macbeth, the narrative remains faithful to the original and is not adapted to the present age. The Shakespearean dialogues sound a bit incongruous, as they are being mouthed by well know actors (Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons), but the sets and props are evocative of an era bygone.
The movie begins with a chaotic scene of Venice and a voice - over narrating the antagonistic relationship between the Christians (the dominant community) and the Jews (the much hated and maligned usurers). The scene depicts Jews being heckled by the Christians and the stage for the movie is set when Antonio (Irons) spits on the face of Shylock (Pacino). The look on the Shylock’s face is priceless – a combination of impotent fury and malignance. The movie moves on two tracks – the main story of the bond between Shylock and Antonio and the somewhat subsidiary love story of Portia (Lynn Collins) and Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes). Shakespeare had written the story on these two tracks – one morbid and the other light – so it is inescapable in the movie. However, I suspect, the movie would have been much tighter and gripping if it had only the Shylock – Antonio incident. (Blasphemous thought I guess.)
The star of the movie is undoubtedly Al Pacino. He elevates the character of Shylock, from a mere moneylender, to a man consumed by the demons of that age. He craves recognition, love and respect of his peers. He seethes with righteous indignation at the injustice meted out to the Jewish clan. He, indeed, seems to have an almost love – hate relationship with Antonio. One suspects that his morbid and dastardly action at demanding Antonio’s pound of flesh has more to do with his frustration at not being accepted as an equal. The movie and more poignantly the original play seems to be very prescient in outlining the irrational racial prejudice and the resultant ‘clash of civilizations’ argument that are so much in vogue in today’s troubled times. Indeed the crux of the story can be probably encapsulated in the following monologue of Shylock:
“To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? 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? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction”
To me, Al Pacino is the star of the show. He is the chief, indeed, the only reason that is sufficient to see this movie. He makes excellent use of his gravelly voice, his eyes and the half mocking, half cynical look on his face and manages to create as much sympathy as a purely dark character like Shylock can possibly evoke. Antonio’s character too is very complex and is competently essayed by Jeremy Irons. He is a product of his times – a paradoxical person – a Jew baiter yet a person with a sense of justice and fair play. The rest of the actors have been aptly cast and lend credible support to the narrative.
The length of the movie is a shade too long and that is probably keeping in tune with the leisurely pace in which stories/plays were meant to be woven in the Shakespearean era. Me, an imbecilic viewer (nay consumer) of typical Hollywood fare would have preferred a tighter, edited script and a shorter running time.
Contributor - Sachin Desai