Al Pacino has long been drawn to “problem” classics: “Richard III,” “The Merchant of Venice” and now “Salome.” It’s not so clear the plays are drawn to him. Despite frequent declarations of his fixation with “Salome,” Pacino as both helmer and star fails to make clear the source of this obsession; nor does he demonstrate a particularly focused understanding of the play or Oscar Wilde. Auds ignorant of either one will find information to sip on rather than chew, though Pacino’s name guarantees limited arthouse exposure followed by rotation on culture channels.
“Wilde Salome” has much in common with Pacino’s “Looking for Richard”; both aim to explore the plays and the playwrights while offering an insider’s view that includes the nitty-gritty of rehearsals and the concept of performance, with occasional words from experts. Pacino did a staged reading of “Salome” in 2003, directed by Estelle Parsons, with whom he reteamed in 2006 to perform it in Los Angeles. The 2006 production is the one seen here, though nowhere is the year stated; nor are there any clues given as to why it’s taken five years to reach the screen, especially since Pacino frequently bemoans the limited time he has to shoot around the staging.
“Salome” had a difficult gestation: Written in 1891, the one-act play was banned from being performed publicly in the U.K., owing to an archaic law prohibiting the depiction of biblical characters onstage. A prime example of turn-of-the-century decadence, the work is a hothouse of sexual tension whose fortunes were particularly tied to Wilde’s increasing demonization as a “sodomite.” At the infamous 1918 Billing trial in London, the play was called “a perfect museum of sexual pathology” and it only received its first public performance in the U.K. in 1931.
Little of this makes it into “Wilde Salome,” despite Pacino’s stated wish to examine the nature of the play and its background. In fact, within the first five minutes, the star admits he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and by the time the end credits roll there’s no gainsaying the man. He brings some actors out to the Mojave Desert to imitate the desert of Judea, yet the re-creations he stages look like a poor History Channel evocation.
What Pacino hoped to understand about the play through this exercise isn’t clear, especially since Wilde never meant “Salome” to be an essay in realism. The bulk of the docu is taken up with the filmed version of the theater piece, shot between evening stagings over approximately one week. While Pacino gets the play’s foregrounding of the gaze, his own performance as Herod is hammy. For unfathomable reasons, he adopts a grating, fey, high-pitched voice (when asked if he imagines Herod as bisexual, Pacino incongruously says yes), which sits oddly with his peculiar Tony Montana styling. Only Jessica Chastain, as Salome, comes off well, her performance a considered exploration of the figure’s dangerously awakened sexuality.
Pacino’s nicely modulated voiceover reading of Wilde’s “De Profundis” is notable, because it’s the only time he allows the author’s poetic words to speak for themselves. It’s clear he appreciates Wilde’s brilliance, but he doesn’t articulate the nature of that brilliance, just as he’s seemingly unable to appreciate Wilde’s crucial importance as a positive though persecuted gay icon.
Editing reflects Pacino’s lack of focus, though Benoit Delhomme’s lensing is allowed more expression in some of the play’s later scenes. Sound is occasionally fuzzy in print viewed.