When did Alfredo James Pacino, Greatest Actor Of His Generation, turn into Shouty Al, Star Of “Righteous Kill” And “Jack and Jill“? The exact moment that the transformation took place is debatable, but it’s hard to deny that, aside from some occasional good HBO work, Pacino has become a grotesque, bellowing inflation of former glories more often than not. But we live in hope that it’s not a one way street, and that the star may find his way back to subtler movie work that he actually cares about. After all, he does, unlike many of his contemporaries, continue to return to the stage frequently, for much-praised performances, in the likes of “Orphans,” “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” and, most recently, “The Merchant of Venice.” And it’s one of these stage turns that forms the center of Pacino’s second film as director, “Wilde Salome,” which like his debut “Looking For Richard,” is a documentary examining one of his favorite plays, and the writer behind them.
Pacino fell in love with a Steven Berkoff production of Oscar Wilde‘s play, a take on the Biblical legend of the tempestuous woman who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist, and claims to be obsessed with it. Having first played the central part of King Herod in a Broadway take in 1992, Pacino decided to return to the play, organizing the mounting of a version in Los Angeles’ Wadsworth Theater in 2006, with legendary theater director Estelle Parsons at the helm. Simultaneously, Pacino would direct two separate casts, one reusing the theatrical cast, the other with recast actors, in a film version, while also directing a documentary going behind the scenes of everything, as well as examining the life of Wilde, and the play’s part in his life.
It’s an ambitious project, even more so than “Looking for Richard” was (that film was far more accessible, for one), and it’s no surprise that it’s taken five years to see the project through to completion (as is clear from the ugly DV footage that makes up much of the candid section of the film). It was clearly a chaotic process, and Pacino isn’t shy about showing himself feuding with Parsons, and with the producers of both the film and the play, as well as showing that he’s somewhat dissatisfied with the final product (although some of these scenes come across as disingenuous, done in a kind of “Jersey Shore“-style scripted documentary style, for want of a better comparison). Pacino opens the film with the caption “A story about obsession,” and it’s clear that Pacino has a real itch to scratch with the play, seeing Herod’s obsession with his stepdaughter Salome as equivalent to his own with Wilde’s play of the same name.
What doesn’t really become clear, unfortunately, is what it is that draws Pacino to “Salome.” There’s not much self-revelation from the actor about what it is about this particular play, over “Uncle Vanya” or “Hamlet” or “The Master Builder,” or whatever, other than he likes playing the role of King Herod. The investigation into Wilde’s life is surface-level stuff, with very little that’ll be new to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the great wit, and he flirts with the idea of some questionable historical reconstructions featuring the actor in a wig as Wilde himself (something which Pacino does, to his credit, admit on camera is a ridiculous idea, and thankfully the scenes are brief). There aren’t many talking heads, but the ones that do crop up range from the genuinely insightful (Tom Stoppard, Tony Kushner) to the what-the-hell-is-he-doing-here (Bono; it emerges only at the end that U2 have a B-side entitled “Salome,” which scores the credits).
So, the documentary side of things is kind of a washout, with none of the real insight into acting of “Looking for Richard,” although there are a few entertaining moments, most notably Pacino being confronted in a gallery in Dublin by a student doing a Tony Montana impression. It’s fortunate, then, that there are real pleasures to be found in the filmed scenes, which are strikingly lensed by Benoit Delhomme (“The Proposition“). It’s a slightly rocky start; Pacino makes what is politely referred to as a bold choice with Herod’s voice, with a strange, incongrous Transatlantic twang, and he enters at full pitch, bringing fears of yet another Shouty Al turn. But as the play reaches its climax, you start to see why he loves playing the part, and it’s the most electric turn he’s given in some time. Some of the supporting players are a little over-theatrical, but Roxanne Hart (of “Highlander” fame, no less) is excellent as Herod’s wife Herodias.
But there’s one principle reason to see “Wilde Salome,” and the clue is in the second part of the title. Pacino (and, we assume, Parsons) can claim bragging rights on Jessica Chastain, who plays the title role in the production; she was cast in the stage version way back in 2006, long before her current omnipresence, when all she had to her name were a handful of TV credits on the likes of “E.R.” and “Veronica Mars.” Not only does Chastain (only 25 at time of filming) exude star quality and a serious-minded work ethic in the behind-the-scenes footage, but she’s also sensationally, jaw-droppingly good as Salome. It’s a far cry from her ethereal turn in “The Tree of Life,” the actress moving effortlessly between the innocent, the seductress and the monster. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her when she’s on screen, and it firmly reinforces what’s become more and more clear over the course of 2011; that she’s a truly precious talent, and one that will only go on to do more and more impressive work over the years.
It remains to be seen if the film gets even the kind of limited release that “Looking for Richard” received — it’s a much more niche piece of work, and being much less well realized, is unlikely to attract even much of an arthouse crowd. But even if it ends up airing on PBS years from now, it’s worth checking out, if only for the acting fireworks. [C]