Anti-Jewish sentiments are built into Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice as they are in the New Testament, which Mel Gibson learned when his Passion of the Christ renewed an age-old controversy. Al Pacino, taking on the role of Shylock — the Jewish money lender who demands a pound of flesh from Antonio (Jeremy Irons) if he fails to repay his debt — will have to duck similar flak. Director Michael Radford, who adapted the play for the screen, helps by putting the work in context. It’s Venice, 1594, when Christian enmity toward Jews was a fact of life. Take the famous trial scene in which Portia (striking newcomer Lynn Collins), disguised as a male lawyer, strains the quality of mercy. It can’t help but fuel the fans when Shylock is brought to financial ruin and forced to convert to Christianity.
Pacino, in a performance of fine-honed rage and resignation (no hoo-ha grandstanding here), tempers the role with compassion. The actor speaks the Bard’s verse with quiet command. The dark pools of his eyes show a path to a history of persecution that find a telling framework for Shylock’s actions. The film itself occasionally plods, but Pacino, tackling a tough trap of a role, raises the bar in a mesmerizing acting triumph.