The Merchant of Venice

Rated R 2004

When was the last time you lost yourself in a Shakespeare film? The action begins on the Venetian canals and steers us briskly into the tangle of 16th-century Venice. At that time, Jews were forced to live in a walled "geto," forbidden from owning property, and spat upon as the usurers they had to become. That's the source of the trouble between Shylock (Al Pacino), Shakespeare's most controversial character (and only Jew), and Antonio (Jeremy Irons), the merchant of the title, who has secured a loan with the promise of a pound of his own flesh as collateral. Michael Radford (Il Postino) has made a gripping, highly cinematic adaptation of a gorgeous work of theater, using a hand-held camera at moments of instability to convey the story's dangerous flirtation with societal collapse. His actors have sunk so deeply into the language that it plays like modern English, only far richer. And the juicy naturalism -- rippling canals, roiling populace, glittering ducats -- makes for a luscious backdrop.

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