Merchant offers potent portrait of historic anti-Semitism

Of all the prestigious films released at the end of the year for Academy Award and Top 10 consideration, none is more important, or more harrowing, than “William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.”

An uneasy combination of moral fable and romantic comedy, the first-ever screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s problematic play is made unforgettable by an agonizing, unrelenting courtroom scene.

This eminently literate costume drama, set in 16th century Italy, decidedly does not play like a museum piece. It broods and crackles with an energy and momentum that, purely from an entertainment standpoint, put it way ahead of the season’s higher-profile movies.

The film opens in the Bay Area on Friday, Jan. 14.

It’s a pleasure to report that “Merchant,” scripted and directed by Michael Radford (“Il Postino”), is a film of bravura, but the more pressing question for Jewish moviegoers is how Shylock is portrayed.

The opening shots of “Merchant” are unambiguous in their depiction of an anti-Semitic, two-tier society. The Christians run Venice, living decadently and habitually abusing the Jews, who are made to wear red hats and live in ghettos.

So absolute is the Christians’ power — and loathing — that even a respected and dignified merchant, Antonio (Jeremy Irons), thinks nothing of spitting in the face of an elderly Jewish moneylender.

Shylock (Al Pacino) excels at an illegal occupation practiced only by Jews, who have been summarily banned from legitimate businesses. From the outset, “Merchant” steers even the most callous viewer to sympathize with him.

As Shakespeare would have it, though, Antonio has a need for Shylock’s services. The businessman requires a bridge loan (until his ships come in) to finance his friend Bassanio’s journey to court a wealthy beauty named Portia (Lynn Collins).

Shylock, holding the upper hand for once, regains a measure of pride by extracting tough terms that both men nonetheless view as symbolic: Should Antonio default, Shylock is entitled to a pound of his flesh.

As played by Irons, Antonio is amply self-entitled but also uncommonly self-aware. He feels loss, rejection and loneliness in the course of the film, softening the villain’s edges to the point where he is also a victim.

Pacino imbues Shylock with enormous gravity, playing him as world-weary but undaunted. He knows well the way of the world but has never accepted it. He is a man who is exceptionally confident in his own abilities yet disrespected and deprived of the chance to compete at the highest level.

Shylock is widowed but has a teenage daughter, Jessica. A peripheral, ambiguous figure, she nonetheless makes a choice that has devastating repercussions. Late one night, she takes a box of jewels and elopes with her non-Jewish boyfriend, Lorenzo.

Meanwhile, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) succeeds in winning Portia’s hand. As with any production of “Merchant,” the comically romantic shenanigans that ensue at Portia’s estate are trivial compared to the devil’s play unfolding in the city.

We are impatient to return to Venice where, indeed, Antonio has a stretch of bad luck. In a turn both far-fetched and inevitable, Shylock seeks the legal enforcement of the bond.

Had Jessica not run away, had she not taken a large chunk of his fortune, (perhaps) had she not married outside the faith, Shylock might be reasonable. But he is mightily injured, and in his pain and anger does not see straight.

In court, Pacino plays Shylock as both mercilessly rigid and tragically self-destructive. Some will see Shylock as an obstinate fool who gets what he deserves.

But given the viciously anti-Semitic society on display, a courtroom correction would make little difference in either the short or long run. Once Shylock dared to publicly claim his rights against a gentile, there could be no possible resolution that would be good for the Jew — or the Jews.

Some scholars assert that “The Merchant of Venice” is inescapably anti-Semitic, no matter how much Shylock suffers. Perhaps. But Shakespeare’s great gift was an ability to write speeches for every character that not only conveyed personality and moved the plot forward, but made convincing arguments for his or her point of view. If the fervor of the anti-Semites were impotent or diluted, the story would lose its underpinnings.

Shakespeare’s plays served as a form of public debate, as well as drama and entertainment. This ambitious and enlightened film certainly warrants serious discussion. Unfortunately, it will find its biggest audiences in urban centers, where people are already greatly concerned about the growing influence of religion on public policy.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.