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Venice 2011. Al Pacino's "Wilde Salome"

They're saying it's a mess. Some are saying, though, that it's a very fun mess.

"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." Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter: "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."

It's "an enjoyable mess," finds Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek, "particularly for anyone who gets a thrill out of documentaries about process…. [D]uring the course of it, the young star of the production, Jessica Chastain (seen recently in The Tree of Life and The Help) transforms before our eyes from a stiff ingenue to a force to be reckoned with. Pacino, for one, can't believe what he sees. In this production, he himself plays Herod, lascivious stepfather to Chastain's comely Salome, and his line readings come straight out the goombah school of acting: 'Why did she not return to the banquet as I commanded huh?' he asks at one point, his eyes bulging with froglike intensity. Only Pacino could get away with that kind of absurd line delivery, and actually, not even he can. But Wilde Salome is still great fun to watch. 'I play Herod because crazy emperors work for me,' Pacino says. As always, the world is his."

Especially tonight, as he receives the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award.

"Salome had a difficult gestation," Jay Weissberg reminds us in Variety. "Written in 1891, the one-act play was banned from being performed publicly in the UK, 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 UK 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."

"What doesn't really become clear," agrees Oliver Lyttelton at the Playlist, "is what it is that draws Pacino to Salome…. The investigation into Wilde's life is surface-level stuff… 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 Benoît Delhomme (The Proposition)."


Update, 9/7: Jonathan Romney, blogging for the London Review of Books: "I couldn't pretend that Al Pacino's Wilde Salome is a good film, but it's not a bad one either; it's unimpeachably honest, if nothing else, and was certainly the most enjoyable thing I saw in Venice."

Update, 9/9: "At the official premiere in the Festival's Sala Grande, the star wowed his audience with a charming monologue, some of it in Italian," notes Time's Richard Corliss. "He really should take this show on the road."

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