The Merchant of Venice (2004)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Period Film, Tragedy  |   Release Date - Dec 29, 2004 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 138 min.  |   Countries - United Kingdom , Italy , Luxembourg , United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare gives Shylock one of the most famous defenses of human equality in the English language ("If you prick us, do we not bleed?"), and in Michael Radford's adaptation, this humanity is teased out even further, making Shylock the tragic center of what is ostensibly a comedy. And it's this tension between comedy and tragedy that makes The Merchant of Venice a fascinating reading of a difficult play. The film opens with a text prologue describing the harsh reality of Jewish life in 16th century Venice. From there, Radford's script and Al Pacino's fierce performance collude to make Shylock the centerpiece of the film, turning the anti-Semitism of the play on its head; rather than being implicit, we face it head-on. Shylock is an anti-Semitic distortion, yes, but from Radford's perspective, he also serves as a reflection and condemnation of the bigotry around him. Shylock is certainly the most human of all the characters in this adaptation. We don't condone his actions, but in the context Radford sets up, he is understandably vindictive as a man who has lacked power and suddenly receives it. He wants justice -- any form of justice. So when he receives his comeuppance, what may have originally been viewed as a villain getting what he deserved comes across as cruel and vindictive. Radford's strategy of emphasizing Shylock turns the ostensible protagonists into lightweights and makes their fates feel inconsequential. But if much of what happens around Shylock seems frivolous, perhaps that's the point.