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February 15, 2006

Two Shylocks

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The Merchant of Venice
Michael Radford - 2004
Sony Pictures Region 1 DVD

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Le Grand Role
Steve Suissa - 2004
First Run Features Region 1 DVD

In Le Grand Role, struggling actor Maurice Kurtz is asked by director Rudolph Grichenberg to name other actors capable of playing Shylock. One of the actors mentioned by Kurtz is Al Pacino. That Pacino is cited twice in Le Grand Role is a curious coincidence linking these two films.

Michael Radford prepares the audience for a sympathetic Shylock with informative titles briefly explaining the life of Venetian Jews in the late 16th Century. The historical context is helpful in this interpretation of the play. While he has shown his interest in Shakespeare with Looking for Richard, about Richard III, the problem with Al Pacino doing Shakespeare is that he cannot totally transcend being Al Pacino. There are times when I felt totally aware that I was watching Al Pacino with what sounded like a light Yiddish accent. Even more distracting was the choice of Lynn Collins as Portia. Collins looks remarkably similar to Laura Prepon that while Collins was on screen, I was wondering why she looked so familiar.

As films based on Shakespeare plays go, this is still quite watchable. Worthy especially is the performance of Jeremy Irons as Antonio, the title role. The language is, for the most part, spoken in conversational style. Radford takes advantage of location shooting with shots in and around Venice. Even if Pacino is not the definitive Shylock, he still grabs attention, especially with the famous speech. Shylock and Othello may be Shakespeare's most problematical characters given both contemporary political repercussions, artistic interpretation and controversy over Shakespeare's intended meaning(s). The worst version of Othello is by Laurence Olivier, in ill-advised blackface. Aside from tending to recite Shakespeare as if to the far balcony of a theater, Olivier looked like he was ready to break out and sing an Al Jolson number at any moment. While Radford is to be commended for recreating 16th Century Venice, one may want to hurl Shakespearean epithets at the MPAA for rating Merchant with an "R" for some brief shots of Venitian women exposing their breasts. As far as adaptations of Shakespeare go, Merchant would be considered quite accessible for high school students if certain cultural guardians hadn't gotten in the way.

Le Grand Role refers both to the French actor's taking on the part of Shylock as well as his role as the part of a loving husband to his cancer-stricken wife. Director Suissa touches on secular and religious Jewish life in contemporary France as well as theories about Shakespeare's hidden Jewish past. The bittersweet comedy-drama also is a gentle satire of Steven Spielberg with Peter Coyote as a well known director who decides to make a film of Merchant in Yiddish. A not-so inside joke is that Coyote acted in Spielberg's E.T.. Perhaps it is the power of Shakespeare's text, but certainly Stephane Freiss' reciting of Shylock's speech in Yiddish, with subtitles, is still affecting. Even if the film adds nothing to the understanding of Shakespeare, Le Grand Role takes its cues from the oft quoted line from As You Like it, "All the world's a stage . . . "

Posted by peter at February 15, 2006 03:47 PM