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Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Merchant of Venice’s anti-Semitism is that it isn’t really that important to the play. Not, at least, to the play as Shakespeare structured it or as its original audiences must have experienced it, living in an officially Protestant England. Yet the characterization of Jewish usurer Shylock has since become the text’s essential issue. Shylock is surely the reason that the late-16th-century story, adapted for movies five times in the United States and Britain between 1908 and 1922, was then not filmed in English for more than 80 years. Perhaps the only thing that could bring the despised lender back to the screen was a movie star who wanted to play him.

Eclectic British director Michael Radford—best known for another Italian tale, Il Postino—played no small part in adapting The Merchant of Venice, skillfully compressing the narrative without leaving awkward gaps. Yet this smart, assured, and problematic film is Al Pacino’s show, with all the other performances revolving around his fierce Shylock. Pacino, who already paid tribute to another Shakespearian monster with Looking for Richard, is rendered strangely calm by the Bard’s text. In constrast to his performances in such Hollywood products as Scent of a Woman and Gigli, the actor doesn’t play to the balcony by mugging and yelping. He’s vehement, but no more so than Shylock’s circumstances require.

For those who don’t know the original Merchant of Venice, two things need to be explained. First, the play is technically a comedy. No one dies, and the protagonists are rewarded at the end, gaining true love and lots of cash. Indeed, the crucial courtroom scene, which turns on the supposed contrast between Jewish justice and Christian mercy, is undercut by an element of farce: It features several women in men’s clothing, a device that in Shakespeare’s other comedies denotes lighthearted subversion of the social order. Second, Shylock is not the title character. That would be Antonio, a somewhat Hamlet-like businessman here given a wistful homosexual tinge by Jeremy Irons. (It’s apparently the actor’s new speciality.) Formally, Shylock is a supporting character, yet he’s awarded Merchant’s best-known speech, one that calls the play’s conclusion into question.

Though Radford has pruned the tale to run a little over two hours, his version begins with two added scenes, both without significant dialogue. The film opens near a Jewish ghetto, identified as in “Venice, 1596.” Whereas other Shakespeare adaptions stress universality, this one painstakingly places the action in the bad old days: As monks on a small boat loudly condemn the sin of usury, Shylock hurries over the adjacent Rialto bridge, not quite quickly enough to prevent Antonio from spitting on him. Cut to a synagogue, as Shylock—and Benoît Delhomme’s camera—looks toward the balcony and the lender’s daughter, Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson). Without Shylock’s having uttered a word, the film establishes his two reasons for what he will later do: rage at Christian persecution and love for his child.

Only then does Radford turn to Shakespeare’s words, introducing Antonio as a man who is “sad”—today we’d say “depressed”—for no apparent reason. The merchant’s mood brightens with the arrival of his friend Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), at whom Antonio gazes longingly. An impoverished gentleman, Bassanio seeks to marry Portia (Lynn Collins), whose riches are as alluring as her beauty. Bassanio needs a small fortune, however, simply to outfit himself in suitably aristocratic style for the excursion to Portia’s estate. Antonio, who is expecting major profits from his shipping business but is currently low on cash, agrees to borrow 3,000 ducats to finance Bassanio’s venture. They go visit Shylock, who as a Jew can lend money at interest, a practice forbidden to Christians. In fact, as an introductory note has explained, lending is virtually the only occupation permitted Venetian Jews.

Here the director appends another exonerating detail: Shylock has just come from the butcher, and he’s carrying a pound of meat. Inspired by this, he asks Antonio to swear to surrender a pound of his own flesh if the loan is not paid in three months. Shylock’s bloody demand has traditionally been taken as a sign of his cruelty, as well as a possible reference to kosher rules or the anti-Semitic delusion that Jews required Christian blood for certain rituals. This reading, however, presents Shylock’s idea almost as whimsy, and Antonio’s acceptance as more bemused than grudging. He chuckles as he agrees to the terms, seemingly too amiable (or perhaps too apathetic) to worry that he might lose a bit of skin and muscle. (Irons’ character also seems too gentle-spirited to spit on anyone in the street—a detail that comes from the play’s original dialogue.)

With his new finery, Bassanio and his sidekick, Gratiano (Kris Marshall), travel to meet Portia, who’s required to marry the man who guesses which of three caskets holds her likeness. (There’s no tension in this sequence, given that we’ve already seen two other suitors pick the wrong ones.) Bassanio makes the right choice, but as he prepares to wed Portia, he hears that Antonio’s ships have failed to return and that Shylock is demanding the pound of flesh. The nobleman rushes off to help Antonio, who faces a Shylock enraged that Jessica has run off with one of Bassanio’s friends, converting to Christianity and taking much of his money with her in the process. The case seems to be going against Antonio, but then a young legal scholar arrives to make two crucial arguments against Shylock’s claim.

The movie Merchant does as much to rehabilitate Shylock as is possible without a total rewrite. Of course, the play’s anti-Semitic assumptions can’t be excised with the ease with which Radford cuts the racist line Portia utters after a Moroccan prince fails to win her hand, but Shakespeare has done more for Shylock than simply make his the plum role. He’s also given him a classic statement of humanity—“If you prick us, do we not bleed?” and so on—and a more ambiguous context than the simple dichotomy between Jew and Christian suggests. While Shylock is an usurer who sometimes seems incapable of separating his love for Jessica from his passion for money, the others are hardly without greed: Bassanio is a gold digger, Antonio a tycoon, and Jessica a thief. In addition, if this is truly a parable of Christian superiority, then Shylock’s enemies do him a favor by ultimately forcing him to convert. Yet the money lender remains an outcast, his conversion clearly a punishment rather than a blessing.

Shakespeare simply forgot about Shylock, devoting the final section of the play to a supposedly comic subplot about Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s wedding rings. Radford, however, allows Shylock the closing scene, which is also a final bow for Pacino, the film’s dark star. The rest of the cast is fine, Irons and Collins particularly so, but Pacino delivers his lines with as much clarity as brio. If the effect is to set him off from the rest of the cast, it’s entirely apt, given that he’s virtually the only member of his “tribe” in the story.

Fans of the sweet-natured Il Postino may be surprised by this movie’s bite, but Radford has done edgier work in the past, notably 1984 and B. Monkey. Delhomme, who’s worked with such diverse directors as Jean-Jacques Beineix and Tsai Ming-Liang, is also interested in something more than pretty pictures. His golden-toned images evoke Renaissance canvases without being oppressively stately, and he switches to handheld camera when appropriate—notably when Pacino accusingly addresses his big speech directly to the audience. Such moments don’t solve the fundamental problems of The Merchant of Venice, but they do make this philosophically irredeemable parable the most robust cinematic Shakespeare in years.CP