Review: Wilde Salome
REVIEW: Based on that plot description, you might think Al Pacino bites off more than he can chew with WILDE SALOME - and you'd be right. But the amusing thing about this funny, thought-provoking curio is that the famed actor realizes this just as much as you do. At various points in the movie - which is a hybrid of documentary, feature film, experimental ramble - Pacino looks run ragged by his ambitious endeavor, and he'll comment as much directly to the camera. "They're going to say I don't know what I'm doing," he says at one point (I'm paraphrasing). "And they'll be right."
But not unlike his great LOOKING FOR RICHARD, which tread similar ground as the actor took strides to understand Shakespeare's "Richard III," WILDE SALOME works on the strength of Pacino's scruffy charisma, his determination to make a cohesive version of a difficult subject, and his unique sensibilities as a filmmaker. My love for LOOKING FOR RICHARD is strong, and it's so wonderful to see Pacino playing in the same sandbox once again; others might not quite have the patience for this ultimately strange concoction, even if it moves swiftly at 95 minutes and acts as a quick and easy Cliff's Notes version for both Oscar Wilde and his tragic play. Pacino fans should eat it up, too.
Shot in 2011, Pacino and theater director Estelle Parsons staged a reading - not a play - of "Salome," which Pacino was going to simultaneously film as a feature film - in four days. (The film would be shot in the day, the reading staged for an audience at night.) Difficult and probably unrealistic, yes, but Pacino's intriguing fondness for both the play and its author puts a tangible pep in his step. Along the way he has to deal with tentative investors, the headstrong Parsons, and his own doubts. When he's not rehearsing tirelessly and working with his crew, Pacino ventures to London and Ireland to further explore the life of Wilde, for whom "Salome" - a take on the Biblical tale of the titular character's obsession with John the Baptist - was something of an anomaly. Pacino talks with the likes of Gore Vidal, Tom Stoppard and Bono (!) in an effort to get to the bottom of the author's life and what "Salome" is really all about. Whether or not he gets to the bottom of any of it in the end is disputable, but he seems willing to keep going even as the documentary ends.
The film is quite candid too about the mixed results Pacino's project ends up with. The reviews for the stage reading aren't glowing; Pacino seems at odds with a handful of his cast and crew; the actor/director moans about the importance of money over craft as he ponders canceling performances in order to finish the film. But if in the end this journey isn't a rousing success, Pacino knows he can hold his head high because he tackled it, and tackled it hard.
WILDE SALOME is a vivid mix of backstage drama, feature film and travelogue through Wilde's life. They don't always mix swimmingly, but Pacino's infectious presence ties it all together; playing himself (obviously), Wilde in a few scenes and King Herod in "Salome," the actor (71-years-old when he made this) is still so much fun to watch, especially when he himself is noticeably having a ball. Jessica Chastain portrays Salome in the play, and is, as ever, a mesmerizing performer, bringing to life the character's vulnerability and cruelty. (We also see the real Chastain struggle with the text and some of Pacino's decisions for the character.)
WILDE SALOME doesn't quite hit the mark as distinctly as did LOOKING FOR RICHARD; Pacino is older, of course, so the pace and intensity have dwindled ever so slightly, and the feature seems a bit all over the map with its tangents. Still, it's an entertaining glimpse at an artist trying to unravel another artist, and for us, the audience, it gets us slightly closer to understanding both. That's a worthy undertaking.