'Salome': Film Review

Gripping for its central performance if not for the overall interpretation.
3/30/2018

Years before her first acting for the screen, Jessica Chastain played the title role in this play adapted for film by costar/director Al Pacino.

2011 was a breakthrough year for Jessica Chastain, in which work done over several years was finally seen by a wowed public: Features she made with directors Jeff Nichols, Terrence Malick and Ralph Fiennes premiered, as did the Hollywood adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help. But at that year's Venice festival, the film elite got a glimpse of work she had done long before: Al Pacino's Wild Salome, a doc in the mode of his Looking for Richard, chronicled the preparations for a Los Angeles staging of Oscar Wilde's Salome in 2006, which starred a then-unknown Chastain in the title role.

Now that film is finally getting a proper theatrical release alongside Salome, Pacino's adaptation of the Estelle Parsons-directed stage play. Though many interested moviegoers will want to see both films, this Salome stands on its own, intriguing as a work of interpretive risk-taking but captivating for its title performance.

In a brief voiceover introduction, the director explains to newbies that, though the actors are in modern dress on a barely-furnished stage, the play was written by Wilde in the 1890s and set at the birth of Christianity: Judea's King Herod (Pacino) holds court with his wife Herodias (Roxanne Hart) after a great feast, and comes to make a bargain with his stepdaughter Salome that will live in Biblical infamy.

Pacino has shot a bit of silent B-roll to help viewers get the picture. That's useful in opening scenes, as some members of the royal guard stand on a terrace, commenting on festivities they observe through a window. The film cuts to what they're watching — glamour, debauchery and above all, Salome. She's like the moon, they think, and the film's editing thinks so too: pale and virginal, magnetic. They're piling stacks upon stacks of similes to describe her: the night sky and everything else they see. Soon Salome has come out for some air, where she'll eventually join the men in the poetic-comparison business.

Salome hears the mad cries of John the Baptist (here known as Jokanaan, and played by Kevin Anderson), who has been imprisoned in an empty cistern. Jokanaan rails against the sinful union of Herod and his brother's former wife Herodias, and Salome must put her eyes upon him. The guards have no authority to bring him out of his cell, but one, Joe Roseto's Narraboth, is so drunk on Salome's beauty he might be convinced. Chastain offers a fine-tuned blend of seduction and imperiousness as she insists that Narraboth bring Jokanaan to her. She speaks of an inevitable moment in the coming days when her path will cross the soldier's; she will see him, she teasingly predicts. "And maybe, I will smile at you."

Salome's composure breaks when Jokanaan is finally before her. Boldly admitting she is "enamored of your body," she rhapsodizes about his ivory torso, his black hair, his red lips. "Thy voice is wine to me," she says, even after he protests, "back, daughter of Babylon!" Salome's mood now flickers between lust and revulsion, but the drama is interrupted when Herod and his companions leave the dinner table and set themselves up on the terrace.

From here, the film's sole subject is the old man's hardly concealed lust for his wife's daughter. Over and over, chilly Herodias rebukes him for the way he looks at her, but Herod grows more lecherous. Pacino oozes as Herod contrives new ways of paying attention to Salome. Plenty ripe himself, his Herod calls for platters of fresh fruit, which he wants the girl to taste. "I love to see in a fruit the mark of thy little teeth," he says.

A viewer's tolerance for the sing-songy eccentricities of Pacino's performance may waver, but as the King begs for a dance from the stepdaughter disgusted by his interest, the film's drama compels. Chastain possesses all the range and intensity she'd display later, condensing a strange emotional journey into one straightforward transaction: I will dance for you if you give me Jokanaan's severed head on a silver charger. The transaction is painful for both sides. And in the end, it's a horror show.

Production company: Chal Productions
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Al Pacino, Roxanne Hart, Kevin Anderson, Joe Roseto
Director: Al Pacino
Screenwriter: Oscar Wilde
Producers: Robert Fox, Barry Navidi
Executive producers: Beni Atoori, Todd Blatt, Robert Ekblom, Andrea Grano, Nader Hassen
Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme
Editors: Pasquale Buba, David Leonard, Jeremy Weiss

80 minutess