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Issue Date:  January 7, 2005

Fantastic films of faraway places

'Merchant of Venice,' 'Flying daggers' and 'Conspiracy of Silence' traverse the globe


A superior movie version of The Merchant of Venice is one of the best presents the movie industry has bestowed on us in some time. Al Pacino, instead of sentimentalizing Shylock or making him hysterical, gives an award-deserving performance, reminding us that despite the anti-Semitic assumptions of the play, Shakespeare gives the moneylender the play’s best lines. Director Michael Radford makes the film move as effortlessly as the original; non-experts will be able to follow the action, which is enhanced by the way the photographic use of Venice magnifies its festive atmosphere and sense of style. As for Belmont, home of Portia (Lynn Collins), it is a fairy island any romantic hero would want to visit, even if he is confused as to what casket to select in order to win the heiress.

Jeremy Irons’ Antonio reminds us how little Shakespeare “explains” his title character: We never learn the source of his melancholy, but we appreciate his generosity and principled opposition to usury. Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) is an ideal aristocratic lover, representing a lifestyle of constant partygoing and attending masquerades, which has understandably left him in debt. Radford aims at an overall realism and wisely has the actors avoid the declamatory mode, but he distorts the courtly atmosphere and distracts us from Shakespeare’s poetry by presenting too many Venetian women parading about with exposed bosoms.

An opening printed note emphasizes that Jews were led into moneylending because most occupations were closed to them, but the film does not blink from presenting its “happy ending” as a victory over Shylock’s refusal to extend mercy. Portia’s famous speech would imply it is somehow a “Christian” triumph, but we have seen Antonio spit on Shylock and have seen his daughter Jessica (Zuleikha Robinson) take a large portion of his wealth when she elopes with Lorenzo (Charlie Cox), so we understand the moneylender’s resentment.

Those with musty high school memories of “The Merchant of Venice” may be surprised by how much fun the movie is, combining a sharp glance at Venetian finance with the fairy-tale atmosphere of Belmont. Though the Bard taxes our suspension of disbelief when his plot calls for lover’s rings to be given away to women disguised as men, Radford’s film is as delightful as it is handsome.

The Chinese director Zhang Yimou already had a hit last summer with “Hero,” a martial arts epic with semi-philosophic exchanges between a would-be Assassin and the Emperor. Advance word was that his new House of Flying Daggers was even more awesome, with Zhang Ziyi as the blind courtesan Mei, a seemingly delicate beauty whose ability to swirl her brocade garments while unleashing a murderous dagger makes violence dazzlingly aesthetic. Mei is a member of the Flying Daggers, a Robin Hood-like band seeking to overthrow a corrupt government. When agents are put on her trail, hoping she will lead them to her chief, the hunt eventually becomes a love triangle.

Never has film fighting been rendered so beautifully, as in some scenes deep in the woods where government forces catch up with Mei and a police lieutenant, and when daggers, swords and arrows are replaced as weapons by the trees themselves. These breathtaking moments make plot irrelevant, and one revels in the very excesses of the director’s operatic style. The sensuality of “Flying Daggers” is both decorous and powerful, capped by an ending in which the fields are covered with snow as the lovers give full vent to their sense of betrayal.

We are constantly shocked by the sheer loveliness of Zhang Yimou’s compositions, but the result is that it is difficult to be moved by his narrative, and we fail to identify with his characters, even when they are in danger. It’s hard to think there can be a surfeit of beauty, and any film by this director is worth seeing, but I ended up preferring “Hero” to “Flying Daggers.”

Conspiracy of Silence, the first film of writer-director John Deery, sees the crisis of the church in Ireland as calling for an end to priestly celibacy. Its powerful story, set in a small Irish town, centers on the suicide of a priest who was HIV-positive, the expulsion of Daniel McLaughlin (Jonathan Forbes) from the seminary on the basis of a misunderstood presumption of homosexual activity, and the pursuit of the suicide story by local journalist David Foley (Jason Barry).

The acting is superior, the scenery charming, but the didactic assumptions of the plot encourage some oversimplification. It’s easy to make the audience sympathize with Daniel’s continuing attraction to his ex-girlfriend (Catherine Walker) but this story tends to take attention away from the ecclesiastical tendency to cover up. Fr. Joseph Ennis (Hugh Quarshie), a visiting priest-author, offers a positive image of the clergy, but no one speaks of the positive meaning of a freely chosen celibacy. Although the climax -- which comes during a TV talk show that brings together the local bishop, the investigating journalist and Daniel -- seems a bit melodramatic, the movie would be worth seeing by Catholic parishes, especially if it is followed by open discussion.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is

Quick Takes
Director James L. Brooks had a good idea for Spanglish, getting delightful Spanish star Paz Vega to play Flor, a Mexican mother who comes to California to work as a nanny after her husband abandons her. There is comedy in her inability to speak English, but Deborah (Téa Leoni), the well-to-do woman she works for, is so selfish and overwrought that she tries to take over Flor’s daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) and humiliates her own daughter (who is overweight), leading the audience to hope that Deborah’s likable chef-husband (Adam Sandler) will run off with Flor. We also get no insight into Cristina’s conflict; she is drawn to a privileged lifestyle but probably patronized by wealthier students at the high school where Deborah has registered her. All in all, a well-intentioned family movie that many will enjoy but that fails to cut very deep.

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2005

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