"My mother was Jewish, by the way," said British director Michael Radford, 58, cutting himself some slack in making the first non-TV film of The Merchant of Venice since 1916, daring to face up to Shakespeare’s alleged anti-Semitism in creating Shylock, the eponymous Jewish villain. But what about directing a Shakespeare drama for the screen, something never attempted before by the Oxford-educated filmmaker of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Il Postino/The Postman?
"When I started to adapt the play, I looked at all Shakespeare film adaptions I could find," Radford said, interviewed at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. "I adore Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew even more than his Romeo and Juliet. For me, the best version of Romeo and Juliet is West Side Story. Orson Welles’s Othello? You just don’t care, you don’t give a shit about Othello."
Had he considered setting his Merchant of Venice in more recent times, or, with Al Pacino as Shylock, Americanizing it? "No, if you set it in Chicago in the 1920s, make it a gangster play, then why are the characters talking about Venice?" Radford shook his head disapprovingly. "Richard the Third as a Nazi metaphor? You’ve got to feel what Shakespeare felt, so I wanted to set it in Venice [in Elizabethan] time: a very precise backdrop, with a dirty ghetto where they made cannon shot and where they spit at Jews. When Tabul is spat upon, he simply wipes it off and carries on like nothing had happened. I set the Jewish scenes in front of a bordello. The ghetto had girls with their tits out. People went to the ghetto to have fun. "There was lots of anti-Semitism then, also lots of tolerance. If I can show this, plus the context of two cultures [Christian and Jewish], then I will have succeeded."
Radford may have intended for his production to feel authentically 17th century, but the analogies he offers for his movie conception are startlingly pop-culture contemporary: "Shylock is like the dad in Bend It Like Beckham. His daughter, Jessica, is pissed off at living with a stiff father. When she runs off with a Christian, he regards her as a prostitute. After she leaves, he’s suffering from road rage! The matrix of my movie was Nashville: a bunch of human beings neither good nor bad, and Altman not judgmental."
And what of his ending, in which Jessica, though married to a Christian and living in a Christian culture, still secretly cherishes a Jewish ring? "It’s like the necklace in Titanic," Radford answered. "You sense Jessica’s sadness, which explains the silence of Jessica in the last acts." One would imagine that casting Al Pacino as Shylock might be scary for the director. "I’m never intimidated by an actor," Radford said, "not since I worked with Richard Burton, who could be tough! But every actor needs direction. Once Al knew he could trust me, be on the same page, then I could say anything to him that I wanted to. He’s so intense and neurotic about what he does, he would drive us nuts. He contantly wanted to repeat and repeat things, and I’d want to tell him he’d got it all in take seven.
"He gives himself such pain! But if an actor explodes on the set, I care if it’s about his trailer, his entourage, I don’t care if it’s about his work. With Al, if he got angry at himself because he couldn’t get it right, it’s water off a duck’s back. The electricity he engenders! He worked harder than anybody, for months."