Pacino's Shylock on display

New 'Merchant of Venice' addresses controversies

— Al Pacino growls, grimaces and demands a "pound of flesh" as Jewish moneylender Shylock in a new version of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice." But the actor argued Saturday that the film successfully addressed long-standing controversy over the work's anti-Semitism.

Director Michael Radford -- speaking to reporters after the film's screening at the Venice Film Festival -- said his picture shouldn't be seen as a tale just about tensions between Christians and Jews, but as a comment on the very modern problem of two cultures at odds.

Radford's production begins with written titles that give context on persecution of the Jews in 16th-century Venice. It closes with a shot of the broken, tormented Shylock being locked in the ghetto that restricted Jews to a tiny quarter of the city.

Pacino had never thought he would play Shylock. But "I accepted it because I thought that Michael Radford had put together a script that addressed certain issues that were important to deal with," he said.

"I thought it was a character to play that could reflect a human experience. And that to me was more important. Because there's controversy over this type of material throughout the years, and I thought that Michael Radford's script addressed that," Pacino said. "As soon as I read it, I thought, now I can do 'The Merchant of Venice."'

Shakespeare's play tells of an anti-Semitic merchant (Jeremy Irons) who is bound by contract to give a pound of his flesh to Shylock for failing to repay a loan. However, it is Shylock who ultimately faces ruin when a court rules against him, humiliating and ruining the man.

The play has long sparked debate. It contains Shylock's eloquent expression of the pain of anti-Jewish prejudice: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" he asks in a famous soliloquy. It also casts him in the ugly anti-Semitic stereotype of a greedy, bloodthirsty Jew.

Radford argued that his work, which was filmed in period costume in Venice, should not be interpreted at face value.

"'The Merchant of Venice,' I saw as a piece that basically spoke not just of Jews and Venetians. But, using the epoch of the 1500s, it spoke of a very modern situation -- that is, two cultures that don't understand each other in terms of customs and beliefs," he argued.

"I think that people watching the film will realize that it's a film that's talking about other things -- that it's not a film that speaks of the controversy between the Jews and Christians," he said. "It does speak of that. But it's a text set back then. We all hope that people understand what we are saying."

Another big film screening Saturday was "Finding Neverland" by director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball"). The picture -- starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie and Dustin Hoffman -- is an account of how author J.M. Barrie was inspired to write "Peter Pan."

Depp manages a soft-spoken, understated performance as the dreamy Scottish writer who neglects his wife to care for a young widow (Winslet) and her boys. Depp's character tries to draw them away from their grieving through fantasy, which leads to his famous children's tale.

Depp saw a lesson for our own troubled times.

"If any one of us turned on the television to see the horrors that are happening to people in the world now, there's no better time to strive to have some kind of hope through whatever, through imagination, through the ability to close your eyes," he said.

Forster's film is a big tear-jerker. But Depp, Winslet and Forster all said the film tried hard to avoid sentimentality. "It's a pretty thin line," Forster acknowledged. "I tried to pull back."

Other big screenings Saturday included some of the 21 films in competition for the Golden Lion awards, including "Tout un Hiver Sans Feu" by Greg Zglinski and "Mar Adentro" by Alejandro Amenabar.

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