Two new films depict Jews in startlingly different lights. The latest version
of William Shakespeare’s controversial play
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
can’t escape its anti-Semitic roots. MY GRANDFATHER’S HOUSE: A JOURNEY
HOME, on the other hand, is one woman’s heartwarming search for her roots in the Old Country.
Al Pacino (with director Michael Radford) as Shylock.
His guttural New York accent sounds crude compared to the other actors’ British lilt.
PHOTO CREDIT: SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
The title character in Venice is a prosperous businessman named Antonio who makes his living managing huge commercial ventures. Cash-short when his young friend Bassanio asks to borrow money from him (so he can woo a beautiful heiress named Portia), Antonio sends Bassanio to a Jewish moneylender named Shylock. Shylock agrees to lend Bassanio the money, but to prove to Antonio that he’s motivated by more than greed, Shylock asks for a mere “pound of flesh” as collateral. Thinking he’s joking, and certain, in any case, that his current investments are secure, Antonio agrees. But at the very moment these men are signing their deal, Shylock’s daughter Jessica elopes with Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo. When Shylock hears that Antonio’s ships have all gone aground, he plots his revenge; he demands Antonio’s heart as compensation for the heart ripped from his own body when his only child left home, deserting both him and the entire Jewish community.
This is the context for one of literature’s most infamous battles between Christian and Jew, embedded by William Shakespeare in an otherwise playful comedy in which Bassanio and Portia, and Lorenzo and Jessica, work through their romantic entanglements. More than four hundred years after its first performance, scholars and critics are still debating the question: Is
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE anti-Semitic?
Through-out the centuries, many famous actors have played Shylock. Sympathetic Shylocks were a staple on Yiddish stages in the 1920’s, and demonic Shylocks dominated German stages in the 1930’s. After the Holocaust, more and more Shylocks began to appear on film, where the need to cut a four-hour script down to a two-hour screenplay gave directors license to trim Shakespeare’s text to suit their own politics.
Our newest THE MERCHANT
OF VENICE is a lush production filmed on location by Michael Radford. Radford, who also wrote the screenplay, received Oscar nominations in 1996 for his adaptation and direction of
IL POSTINO. His feel for Italy is as sure and strong as ever. The screen is filled with opulent jewels, fabrics, and furniture, setting off the beautiful faces of his cast members, principally Jeremy Irons, as Antonio and Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio. The soundtrack is also melodious, with plenty of lute music and mellifluous British accents.
But then there’s Al Pacino…
Al Pacino is almost always described as “a great actor,” but what people really mean is that Pacino has given many great performances. He could have imbued his Shylock with some of the icy, calculating reserve Michael Corleone had in the first two installments of
THE GODFATHER series. He doesn’t. Furthermore, Shylock speaks here with the voice of 'Lefty' Ruggiero, the mobster in Donnie Brasco (“Fugeddaboutit!”). Compared to the British accents emanating from the rest of the cast, this Shylock sounds crude and guttural even among his fellow Jews.
In the climactic courtroom scene, Shylock is told to take his “pound of flesh.” The visual effect is stunning. Antonio’s shirt is ripped open, and Jeremy Irons’ naked chest is revealed. Thin and taut, it evokes innumerable Renaissance paintings. And a raving Jew raises his knife high, determined once again to kill Christ. Speaking as someone who saw Mel Gibson’s movie twice just to make sure I got my facts right, no image in
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST disturbed me half as much as this one.
“Me ken makhn der kholem greser vi di
nakht.” (“You Can Make the Dream Bigger than the Night.”)
Every January the multiplexes abound with potential Oscar nominees, so we have an abundance of choices. And if you’re a Chicago resident, you can also head downtown to the Gene Siskel Film Center to see a wonderful new documentary called
MY GRANDFATHER’S HOUSE. In other words, we can watch Shylock give Salarino his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech yet again, or, confident in the fact that everyone finally knows the answer to that question, we can travel with Eileen Douglas to Kovno, Lithuania.
Eileen Douglas explores the streets of old town Kovno.
PHOTO CREDIT: DOUGLAS/STEINMAN PRODUCTIONS
MY GRANDFATHER’S HOUSE: A JOURNEY
HOME is the story of a woman in early middle age who develops a deep craving for roots. Eileen, who narrates the story under the direction of her partner, Ron Steinman, jumps right in with minimal background. We don’t know who she is or what triggered all of this, but her story has such narrative drive that we’re quickly engaged.
Eileen was raised in Syracuse, New York. Her grandfather, who died when she was twelve, was a man with secrets. Whenever Eileen asked him about his family, all he would say was they ”died in the War.” A good little American girl, she imagined it all as a movie; a bomb comes down on a house and poof, Sam’s family is gone. But as an adult she finds albums filled with old pictures and letters written in Yiddish, and she becomes obsessed.
The 70-minute film is divided into three parts. In the first half-hour, Eileen plans her trip to Lithuania, assembling detailed information about her family along the way. Melding personal reminiscences with archival data, she fills in her grandfather’s family tree: four brothers (David, Max, Motel, and Sam) and two sisters (Ethel and Rachel). By the time she reaches Kovno, Eileen knows who she’s looking for and where to look for them.
Working with a Lithuanian archivist named Vitalia, Eileen spends the second half hour walking the streets her family once called home and learning the details of each life. Vitalia has access to centuries’ worth of documentation: birth records and maps and passports and voter registration lists. “This family was subject to all of the insanity of the 20th century,” says one cousin in voiceover. “I can see now why my grandfather never talked,” concludes Eileen.
And yet there she is, in a place that used to be behind the Iron Curtain, a place all her relatives thought was lost forever. And so she decides her true mission is “To repair, to fix, to right the pain. To put loved ones torn from each other back together again, if not in this world then in another dimension.” And she places stones and photographs and yahrzeit candles “from the lucky ones” on her great grandmother’s grave.
In the coda, Eileen brings all the surviving cousins together for a reunion outside Tel Aviv. It turns out that “the lucky ones” include those deported to Siberia by Stalin as well as those born in America. “Alts is rekht,” they agree, and in this wise and heartwarming movie, it’s true: in the end, “Everything is OK.”
OF VENICE will open at Landmark’s Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park on Friday, January 21st. The Gene Siskel Film Center (State & Randolph) will show
HOUSE on Monday, January 24th and Thursday, January 27th.
Some Additional Thoughts
about THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
In my review of Michael Radford’s version of THE
MERCHANT OF VENICE, I make much of the fact that Al Pacino speaks with the accent of a New York mobster while all of his co-stars (including Allan Corduner as his Jewish confidante Tubal) speak the Queen’s English.
Some critics assume Pacino’s accent is intentional. For example, in her 12/28/04 USA TODAY review,
Claudia Puig wrote:
"... when it comes to Shakespearean characters, Pacino is in his element. Sure, he screams and yells, but the context warrants it. His evocative, Yiddish-tinged English stands out from the rest of the cast's clipped British accents..."
But this is wrong for two reasons. First, Pacino's accent (while definitely evoking "New York") is not "Yiddish" in any way. Second & more important, it was never intended to be Yiddish.
When I interviewed him here in
Chicago, director Michael Radford told me emphatically that his Shylock was
"He’s a Sephardic Jew. Some people have accused me for having him have an Ashkenazic accent but he’s a Sephardic Jew. You can tell from the synagogue. You can tell from the clothes that he wears."
Radford certainly has strong grounds for his own interpretation. But in his 2001 production (available on DVD),
Trevor Nunn set the play in 1930’s Berlin. He cast Henry Goodman as Shylock, and not only had Shylock speak with a Yiddish accent but actually had Shylock and Jessica (his daughter) sing Yiddish songs together. On the other hand, in the 1973 version staring
Laurence Olivier as Shylock (available on VHS only), all of the characters speak with beautifully modulated British accents and wear clothing from the Victorian era.
All of these decisions (casting, costuming, etc) have implications. This is a movie, therefore sounds & images combine to form a total visceral effect. While I don’t believe that every version of THE MERCHANT OF VENICE has to be anti-Semitic, and while I know for a fact that Michael Radford had the best of intentions, I sincerely believe that several of his key decisions were way off.
It is now my honor to turn “the FF2 baton” over to George Jochnowitz, professor emeritus of linguistics at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York, who will explain a bit more about Judeo-Italian culture for those of you who are as obsessed as I am with some of these questions (& their larger implications).
Was Shylock Sephardic?
Thoughts from George Jochnowitz
The character of Shylock in William Shakespeare’s play THE MERCHANT OF VENICE was a Venetian Jew. People often think of Italian Jews as Sephardic. In
America, we usually assume that if Jews are not Ashkenazic (from northern or eastern Europe), then they are Sephardic (from Spain). In Italy, people make more distinctions.
Jews whose families have lived in Italy since Roman times go to synagogues that are called Italian rite synagogues. They are called Italkim or Italiani. Jews whose families came to Venice from Germany during the Renaissance are called Ashkenazic and go to Ashkenazic synagogues, but they speak Italian or Judeo-Italian and are indistinguishable from other Italian Jews. In Venice and elsewhere in the Mediterranean world, there are two kinds of Sephardic synagogues, Ponentine and Levantine.
The Ponentine Jews came from the West, where the sun sets. They came to Italy from Portugal, although, like all Portuguese Jews, their families were originally expelled from Spain in 1492 (during the Spanish Inquisition). The Levantine Jews came from the Ottoman Empire, in the East, where the sun rises. They too were generally descended from Jews expelled from Spain. Unlike the Ponentine Jews, however, the Levantine Jews had by and large never gone through a stage of being New Christians
Italian Jews share a common way of pronouncing Hebrew words. In all Jewish languages, it is logical that words relating to Jewish celebrations, 'bride' and 'groom' for example, are likely to come from Hebrew, but the pronunciations differ. Whereas the Ashkenazim (typically speakers of the Yiddish language) refer to the Sabbath as “Shabes,” the Sephardim (typically speakers of the Ladino language) say “Shabat.” Speakers of Judeo-Italian, however, say “Shabad” or “Shabadde.” The word for prayer shawl in Yiddish is “talis,” while in Ladino it’s “talit.” Speakers of Judeo-Italian, however, call it “un taledde.” Although Venice had separate synagogues for Levantines, Ponentines, Ashkenazim and Italkim, in every one the Italian pronunciation of Hebrew was used.
Shylock could have been a Levantine, a Ponentine, or an Ashkenazi Jew, but since Shakespeare doesn’t specify, we might as well assume he was an Italki.
Additional Information about
MY GRANDFATHER'S HOUSE
RON STEINMAN began his career at 23 at NBC News and spent 35 years at the network. He moved from copyboy to producing segments and writing for the HUNTLEY BRINKLEY REPORT then on to news editor/field producer for the newsmagazine show CHET HUNTLEY REPORTS. For 3 years, he produced documentaries and worked on specials before being named NBC’s Bureau Chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He also served as Bureau Chief in Hong Kong and London before returning to New York headquarters to oversee the network’s news specials.
In 1975, Ron joined the TODAY SHOW, spending 11 years in a number of senior producing positions in Washington and New York as well as overseeing oversees production of all the Today Show’s live special broadcasts. During 7 years as a freelance producer for ABC, he worked on numerous cable projects for A&E’s BIOGRAPHY & Lifetime Television’s INTIMATE PORTRAITS, as well as the Discovery Channel & the History Channel. Ron also produced 3 parts of the highly rated 6-part series on the Vietnam War called THE SOLDIER’S STORY for the Learning Channel as well as the follow-up MISSING IN ACTION, winning a National Headliner Award and an International Documentary Festival Award. While at ABC, he also produced a 2-part series for TLC on the Persian Gulf War.
Ron is also the author of the book THE SOLDIER’S STORY (1999), WOMEN IN VIETNAM (2000), & INSIDE TELEVISIONS FIRST WAR: A SAIGON JOURNAL (2002). In the course of his distinguished career, Ron has won a Peabody Award, a National Press Club award, and 2 American Women in Radio & Television Awards. He has also been nominated for five Emmy Awards. Currently he is also a columnist for the Digital Journalist and other publications. Click here to read Ron’s article
DON’T GIVE UP YOUR DAY JOB about the making of
EILEEN DOUGLAS most recently worked as a correspondent on ABC TV’s Lifetime Magazine. Before that she spent nearly 18 years at all-news WINS Radio, where she was the midday anchor for ten years, as well as a reporter, editor & writer. During those years, she also worked as a weekend reporter for Channel 5 WNEW-TV, & as a news anchor for the ABC Radio network. Before moving to New York in 1975, she spent six years at WKLO Radio in Louisville, Kentucky, first as an anchor/reporter, & then as one of the country’s first women news directors. While in Louisville, she was also co-host & producer of “NOW”, a tv show on CBS’s
Eileen began her career in Syracuse, NY in 1968 as a reporter for the ABC station, Channel 9 WNYS, followed by work as a reporter for the Herald-Journal newspaper. Eileen is the author of two books, RACHEL AND THE UPSIDE DOWN HEART (a book for children about a little girl whose father dies), & EILEEN DOUGLAS’ NEW YORK INFLATION FIGHTER’S GUIDE. She is a member of NY Women in Film & Television, and she is listed in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in American Women, and Who’s Who in Media and Communication.
Eileen & Ron can be reached at:
Douglas/Steinman Productions 1841 Broadway, Suite 1103
NYC, NY 10023
tel/fax 212 765-9848
FINAL FF2 NOTE: This article is a slightly expanded version
of the review originally published
in the January 2005 edition of the WORLD JEWISH DIGEST
(Volume 2 Number 4)
& is posted here with their permission.
For WJD subscription information:
Call 312.332.4172 extension 42