The Top 25 Essential Jewish films continue!…


23. The Merchant of Venice


Tis difficult to review a movie based on William Shakespeare and not wind up simply reviewing “Shakespeare.” That is unless the movie is one of those newfangled high concept renditions where Hamlet takes place in corporate New York or The Taming of the Shrew in high school, but Michael Radford’s 2004 film version of The Merchant of Venice is the bard in rather pure form. Shot in the timeless city of Venice in spectacular period design and costume, and true to the language of the original, this Merchant of Venice is humbly ambitious as opposed to brazenly ambitious. It is well researched as to custom, décor, and cultural etiquette. The sets and cinematography are immaculate. In every sense of the term, it brings the late 16th century play to vibrant life. With all the concentrated faithfulness to Mr. Shakespeare, the film naturally retains its chief ambiguity and the reason for its eternal appeal and fascination amongst the sons and daughters of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As long as The Merchant of Venice is read or performed, its audience will ponder the question: Is Shylock the Jew a villain to be reviled or a tragic figure to be pitied (or perhaps even a pugnacious scrapper to be admired)? What to do with Shylock, who is easily the most memorable and iconic character in the play and maintains a level of preeminence among Shakespeare’s cast of hundreds. Romeo, Juliet, Macbeth, along with the aforementioned Othello and Hamlet are perhaps the only characters known more widely than Shylock, and these others gain the benefit of having their names capitalized in the title. Along with Romeo and Hamlet, only Shylock has gone on to become a widely used (and abused) descriptive noun. Shylock sometimes means a certain type of Jew and too many, ostensibly, it simply means Jew (since Jews are all invariably the same, don't you know). Good old Bill Shakespeare has certainly left us a legacy.


Regardless, Shakespeare has every right to portray Jews, or any other denomination, as bloodthirsty creeps without explanation. Edmund, Claudius, Iago, Lady Macbeth, Richard II – to name a few from Shakespeare’s canon, dastardly knaves all, and Christians. Perhaps, with Shylock, the Jewish reader should concentrate less on whether we are wronged by the depiction, but instead appreciate the complexity of a character, and dissociate it from the religious category (as we certainly do with King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Richard II, or any other play). This exercise remains a difficult task however because Shylock not only evokes “Jew” immediately in our conscience, but the actual word Jew is found over seventy times in the play (and not always with due respect). This unique application cannot be found in reference to the religious persuasions of other characters found in Shakespeare (though Othello’s skin color takes some heat as well).


Radford attempts to diffuse the circumstance rather shamefully by opening the film with a series of informative tidbits about how the Jews weren’t allowed by Christian law to get real jobs so they were forced into usury (money lending at high rates of interest). Basically, Radford is trying to help us jump to his conclusion and not let the play’s words speak for themselves. But even then: What if Jews could only make a living as money lenders? Does that make Shylock more sympathetic a figure? Do we now understand Antonio (cool, confident, and comfortable with the material Jeremy Irons) better when we see him, in the opening scene, walk by Shylock (Al Pacino) and spit on him for no apparent reason. This degrading moment too was added courtesy of Radford (however, certainly within the spirit of the play) in order to promote our desired perspective of the ensuing situation. A situation we are hopefully remotely familiar with from some classroom setting prior to being released from the educational system.


Antonio’s bosom pal Bassanio (pretty, earnest Joseph Fiennes) needs some money to impress a lady in waiting so he asks of Antonio who in turn asks a loan of Shylock. Antonio secures the loan with a pound of his flesh, a request made by Shylock due to his bitterness at being castigated by his spiteful Christian clients, but a term Antonio feels confident he will never need to reconcile. A bizarre twist of fate bankrupts Antonio, and Shylock maliciously (likely due to the meantime corruption of his daughter Jessica by Christians) seeks to have his bond kept and in effect take Antonio’s life. There are other elements to the play surrounding three mystery chests, cross dressing, an abandoned ring, gooey protestations of love, and a bunch of other rather misplaced silliness to provide Queen Elizabeth a full afternoon of entertainment, but at the end of the day, this is Shylock’s rodeo.


It is really a pleasure to watch a masterful actor like Al Pacino wring every nuance out of the multifarious character of Shylock. He is burdened, he is beaten, he is miserable, he is sorrowful and agonized. You almost want to beg him to convert and start afresh. But we all know how stubborn Jews can be, holding on to their God and holding on to their birthright of misery. With the magic of film we are gifted “the close-up,” a marvelous storytelling technique that neither Shakespeare nor his audience in the gallery likely ever dreamed of. So we watch every cragged line and deep furrow in Mr. Pacino’s dog tired face. Every gnarled salt and pepper hair in his untamed beard. We dwell on the whiteness of the spittle gathering on his lips as he rages,  Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” As he unleashes the contempt building in his soul from a lifetime of being maltreated. “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!?

The argument is often made that such a brilliantly articulated and unmistakably thought provoking cry, made by the Jew Shylock, in the midst of a play in which he is the closest representation of evil, clearly indentifies a secondary agenda in Shakespeare. That Shakespeare, despite the anti-Semitic overtones of the play (as the Jew clearly is a stereotypically wicked and money obsessed fellow), wanted to express an inability to overlook the glaring reality of the Jewish perspective.


That Christianity – as correct and superior as it may be – has what claims to answer for, has what sins to provide account. Of course it all depends how you interpret the play (if being read) or how the play is interpreted for you (if being performed). In Radford’s version we are inclined to struggle along with Shylock as he pursues what he in delusion perceives as justice. Shylock, as the character is written, no matter the manipulation of the material, cannot be reasonably defended. Jessica deserted him by her own free will (and likely due to his dreary demeanor). Antonio, though no champion of Jewish civil rights, does not deserve death for defaulting on the loan. Shylock shows no mercy even after being given numerous opportunities to do the proper thing. (He is offered triple the debt). As he greedily wields and sharpens the knife, zealously poised to carve a pound from Christian flesh, we, as Jews, cringe at the immortal desecration of our God’s name perpetrated by the most prolific dramatic writer who ever lived. “And by our holy Sabbath have I sworn to have the due and forfeit of my bond,” Shylock seethes. There is no removing that stain even with the utmost of creative readings.



25 Essential Jewish Films….

25. Exodus

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