The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Pound-of-flesh test for Pacino

Venice, Sept. 5 (Reuters): Al Pacino, who has already made purists squirm with his American accent in one Shakespearean role, has taken another risk, playing Jewish moneylender Shylock in the new film version of The Merchant of Venice.

“It’s a challenge when you have to do something well-known and have to approach it as if it’s being said for the first time,” Pacino said in a press conference at the Venice Film Festival, the venue for the movie’s world premiere.

His portrayal of the usurer, at times fiery or subdued, who demands a pound of flesh as security for a loan, may startle those who know Pacino best as a gangster or gruff cop.

The Italian-American’s presence alongside leading British actors including Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes is just one of the surprises in the new film version of one of Shakespeare’s most troublesome plays, modern renditions of which have all struggled to deal with its sometimes harsh anti-Semitism.

Pacino, 64, has previously directed and starred in Looking for Richard, a film about Shakespeare’s Richard III, and played a Jewish lead in People I Know.

“It would be hard to play a character you don’t like or find in the character something to like about,” said Pacino, his jet-black goatee in stark contrast to his grey-bearded, sad-eyed Shylock in the film.

“We together tried to figure out the back-life of Shylock and what led him to this state.”

Merchant, screening out of competition at Venice, was shot in the lagoon city and is set in the late 16th century.

But with bare-breasted courtesans and a kiss between heroes Antonio and Bassanio, it is anything but a conventional period piece.

Director Michael Radford, best known for the Oscar-nominated Italian drama Il Postino, (The Postman) opens the film with a depiction of the ghetto in which Venice’s Jews were forced to live and shows Shylock getting slapped by Irons’ Antonio — who eventually begs him for a loan — for no apparent reason.

The film also shines a spotlight on the economic motives for the conquest of Portia, the play’s heroine, and Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, whose elopement is portrayed as just the latest in a series of blows to his dignity.

“It’s about a very modern situation,” Radford said.“Two cultures that don’t understand each other.”

Though it is not in the formal competition at the festival, Radford’s Merchant has been one of the most eagerly awaited among more than 70 feature films that will be screened in the different sections of the festival before it ends on September 11.

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