22 March 2012 | JLA-2
Salome served up on a platter by Al Pacino.
I just saw the opening of "Wilde Salome" in San Francisco, with Al Pacino there to give an introduction to the film. He described the passion he felt when he first saw a staged version of "Salome," in London years ago. He was riveted by the writing and wanted to meet the author - before he realized that it had been written by Oscar Wilde. That set him upon a journey to learn more about Wilde and the play itself. In form, it's like, "Looking for Richard," his 1996 exploration of Shakespeare's "Richard III."
What follows is a dissection of Wilde's "Salome" that cuts between a stage performance, the filming of that stage performance, filming in the desert to catch the feeling of Biblical life, and a documentary about Pacino's own exploration. While the film can seem a bit disjointed, it's actually a circular route that ends at the most dramatic parts of the play.
Pacino weaves in bits of Wilde's tempestuous private life and how it relates to the themes of the play. (I didn't know that his wife and children changed their last name to "Holland" after his jail sentence.) It includes visits to Wilde's London house and ultimately to the hotel room in Paris where he died - and where he famously said on his deathbed, "Either the wallpaper goes or I go."
The performance of the play itself is anchored by the Salome of Jessica Chastain, in her first film role. Pacino said that he would not have made the movie without her. And one can see why; it's an electric performance filled with passion, coquettishness, raw sexuality, and evil. After Herod promises Salome whatever she wants in return for dancing for him, he is shocked when she demands the head of John the Baptist. Pacino's King Herod then promises her peacocks, jewels, and titles. But Chastain's Salome never wavers in her vengeful demand. She had been spurned by John the Baptist and she is determined to win - at all costs.
But, ultimately, this is Pacino's story. I felt that it was a bit of a vanity project because Pacino overwhelms both the play and Wilde. He is an over-the-top performer and an over-the-top personality. He pulses with passion, fire, frustration, humor, and intellectual curiosity. One can either marvel at his intensity or be irritated by it. At times, he seems to be a caricature of himself - the bellowing Al Pacino of "The Devil's Advocate."
"Wilde Salome" is an enlightening journey into the world of Wilde, acting, preparation, directing - and the art of being Al Pacino.