In the ’70s, Al Pacino played Frank Serpico under long hair and a thick black beard, but the fuzzy camouflage couldn’t conceal his intensity; his eyes burned right through. In The Merchant of Venice, Pacino’s beard, a full rabbinical one, is bushy and gray, but, once again, the eyes have it. They express the hidden forces — the sadness, rage, and bitter lunge for respect — that make Shylock, the Jewish moneylender of Shakespeare’s Venice, go to the extremes he does. The standard way to humanize Shylock, and to rescue The Merchant of Venice from the taint of anti-Semitism, is to pack the ”If you prick us, do we not bleed?” soliloquy with all the desperate fervor it can hold — to turn it into an imploring Renaissance Jewish version of a Malcolm X screed. Pacino, though, is too sly an actor to depend on such an obvious piety. He delivers the speech with spiky resolve, but when Shylock’s legal bond with Antonio (Jeremy Irons) is forfeited, and the moneylender insists — to the point of merciless obsession — on being paid with the agreed-upon pound of flesh, Pacino shows you what is only subliminally in the text: that Shylock’s heart of stone is really a wall of wounded pride.
The director, Michael Radford, had edited the play down to one of those user-friendly, travelogue Bard movies, but despite some clunky exposition and rote iambic line readings, it attains a bona fide Shakespearean vibrance. Lynn Collins, who plays Portia in a Pre-Raphaelite mane, is a true find. When she chastises Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) for having bartered away the wedding ring he swore he would never remove, her twinkle of defiance seals the play’s grand paradox: that the line that separates a sacred human contract from one that’s profane is all but invisible.