“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.”
I don’t have a huge problem with old movies, books or stories in general being less than sensitive when it comes matters of race, gender and religion etc. As wrong or as misguided as those attitudes can be, I still think it’s OK that they exist, as long as we acknowledge how wrong and misguided they were. And hopefully even use them to keep moving in the right direction. So while they’re existence doesn’t bother me, I am a little confused by the perpetuation of them. Was Shakespeare an anti-Semite? One look at The Merchant of Venice I’d have to assume yes. And while I have no problem with the play still existing today, I have no idea why someone would want to make a lush, big budget movie version in the new millennium, that only seems to perpetuate Shakespeare’s terrible, terrible attitude.
Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) has a problem. He’s got his heart set on Portia (Lynn Collins), but wooing her requires a crap load of money that he doesn’t have. So he goes to his friend Antonio (Jeremy Irons) for help. Antonio has a problem, he’s technically rich, but cash poor at the moment while his fleet of trade ships is all at sea, making his next fortune. So Antonio gives his bond to local money lender, Shylock (Al Pacino). Shylock has a problem, he’s Jewish, and in 16th century Venice, that basically means being a second class citizen. It also means being abused and spat on regularly by the Christian Antonio.
But Shylock decides to lend the 3,000 ducats, with no interest, on the condition that if Antonio defaults, Shylock can literally take a pound of his flesh. So with his 3,000 ducats, Bassanio sets off to score some tail and Antonio learns that all of his ships have been lost at sea, so being able to pay Shylock back is gonna be a little difficult. Meanwhile, Shylock’s daughter (Zuleokha Robinson as Jessica) elopes with a Christian and renounces her Judaism. So now, Shylock is more determined than ever to get what he is owed.
Basically, Shylock loses everything because he’s a money and revenge obsessed Jew. His salvation at the end of it all comes when he is forced to convert to Christianity. You take Shakespeare’s name off this script and put anyone else’s on there, and you’ve got a hate crime on your hands.
But there is one good thing about this movie. The last decade or two have seen Pacino turn into a parody of himself. As he’s grown older, he’s grown louder and more over the top. So for me, the biggest and best surprise in The Merchant of Venice was seeing a new millennium Pacino role that’s for the most part, pretty quiet and subdued. He has few moments of Pacino-esque rage, but they’re very few and far between. And he really does know how to get his mouth around Shakespeare’s dialogue.