Wilde Salome: Venice Film Review

Wilde Solome - 2011- H
Al Pacino passionately explores the Oscar Wilde play Salome in a complex but engrossing doc.

Jessica Chastain, Kevin Anderson and Estelle Parsons co-star in the film, an exploration of Oscar Wilde's "Salome" play.

More personal and obsessive than his 1996 Shakespeare documentary Looking for Richard, with which it has much in common, Al Pacino’s long-in-the-making Wilde Salome is both an intriguing exploration of Oscar Wilde’s play about the destructive use of sexuality and an intimate self-portrait of the actor/director as he over-extends himself into performing Salome on stage and shooting a film -- this film -- at the same time. Playing mostly himself but also King Herod and, in one scene, Oscar Wilde, with whom he toys with identifying, Pacino is the creator and real subject of the work.  For all its esotericism, the film can count on the star appeal of veteran Pacino and rising star Jessica Chastain, fascinating in the role of Salome, to take wing with specialized auds following its Venice bow out of competition.

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Fifteen years after his first directing stint exploring Richard III, Pacino is older but as curious and energetic as ever, hammy, moody and likeable by turns. Researching Salome, which he performed twice on stage, becomes an “obsession” as he struggles to find the right mixture of the play, Wilde, himself making the play and making a movie about all of the above. Editors Roberto Silvi and David Leonard do a Herculean job compiling very disparate material into an engrossing, smooth-flowing film.

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As in Looking for Richard, it is a treat watching skilled actors build their performances during rehearsal, particularly the luminous young Chastain (this is her first film role), Kevin Anderson as Jokanaan/John the Baptist and Roxanne Hart playing Salome’s smarmy mother Herodias.  Large chunks of the play are performed in three formats:  as a reading in an L.A. theater before an audience, recreated on a sound stage, and with a different cast in the middle of a desert, the least necessary part of the film.

Pacino describes how he felt increasingly drawn to Wilde as he investigated his life and its influence on the play. Travelling to New York, Dublin, London and Paris, he interviewed luminaries like Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal, Bono, Tom Kushner and Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, all of whom have something interesting to say. A married man who doted on his children, Wilde fell in love with a young aristocrat and was arrested and sentenced to two years of hard labor in Reading Gaol, under a new English law that punished homosexuality. From being the toast of society and the most famous writer of his day, he found himself disgraced, ill, impoverished and alienated from his beloved children.

Pacino’s professed identification with Wilde seems to have one bizarre consequence. Why, in the role of King Herod, he felt compelled to adopt a whiny, high-pitched voice with gay inflections is a question posed by a journalist in the film, to which Pacino has no answer. Estelle Parsons, the play’s director, doesn’t weigh in on the matter, which remains a puzzling and uncomfortable choice to depict a lustful king busy putting the moves on his 15-year-old stepdaughter.

Several times the actor/director seems to be testing his muscle, as when he rails against the time constraints imposed by his producers Barry Navidi and Robert Fox, who appear as themselves alongside the good-natured D.P. Benoit Delhomme, whose French accent is the occasion of humor. These candid moments feel real, rounding out the man Pacino with a touch of humorous self-irony.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of competition)
Production company: Salome Productions
Cast: Al Pacino, Jessica Chastain, Kevin Anderson, Estelle Parsons, Roxanne Hart, Barry Navidi, Joe Roseto
Director: Al Pacino
Screenwriter: Al Pacino based on Oscar Wilde’s novel
Executive producers: George Ann Mason, Sakiko Yamada, Beni Atoori, Reza Rashidian, Andrea Grano, Amy Nederlander, Daryl Roth, Tony Schiena, Giulia Marletta, Enrica de Biasi, Pierluigi Navoni, Tod Blatt, Lamont Bennett
Producers: Barry Navidi, Robert Fox
Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme
Production designer: Nicole Ruby
Music: Jeff Beal
Costumes: Shukkun Hue, Annie Prager
Editors: Roberto Silvi, David Leonard
Sales Agent: Archlight Films
95 minutes