Hotel Rwanda, a collaboration of talents, is an eloquent warning about the choices individuals and nations may make again. Armond White, in his December 22, 2004 AOL Black Voices review, wrote that, “You wonder how can black people be this cruel to each other.” I thought that was very funny: I do not wonder, have no reason to wonder, having seen various kinds of cruelty between blacks all my life, precisely the kind of cruelty that optimists, ideologues, and murderers of spirit as well as flesh do not want us to acknowledge. (A few examples of public proof: an ongoing civil war in the Congo is responsible for the deaths of about four million people; and in America news reports about black gang violence, as well as domestic abuse, go back decades. Such brutality has existed all along, though it may be considered part of larger stories. The African-American experience is in some ways epic, involving the struggle for education, culture, and political rights, exemplified by people such as Alexander Crummell, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida Wells Barnett, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Bunche, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry, Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis, Andrew Young, Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, August Wilson, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Bell Hooks, Orlando Patterson, Derrick Bell, people who by their work create a genuine and accessible tradition, and whose names are nearly talismans to ward off cynicism—and a repudiation of the idea that African Americans are members of an oral tradition, which was mostly an excuse for the lack of literary production. The Arabs have an oral tradition—which means that long intricate poems were composed and passed from mouth to ear for generations during hundreds of years, not that there were no poems produced. Why is that important? Beauty and knowledge are shared; and the wheel does not have to be reinvented. The oral and written literature of Rwanda includes histories and myths about royalty, and poetry about royalty, hunting, and pastoral life, and also proverbs, riddles, and songs; and literature in Rwanda, like the much more developed literature in Germany, did not prevent genocide.)
In Charles Taylor’s Salon review, also appearing December 22, 2004, Taylor speculated about the film’s presentation of the cause of the killing and wrote, “George and Pearson understand that no explanation can ever fully account for an outbreak of the irrational on as massive a level as the Rwandan genocide. In essence, they are saying that evil took over in Rwanda.” I do not think that is what the film is saying nor do I think it is what any viewer should believe—unless we are to accept evil as part of ordinary life. What happens in the film is a fulfillment of cultural logic: just as hundred of years of persecution of Jews prepared the way for Hitler’s large-scale murder of them, and modern technology assisted him (the huge gas chambers and crematoriums and the trains to get people to them), the years of discord cultivated by the Belgians between Hutu and Tutsi, and the resources of modern technology (boxes of machetes and guns arriving by international airway, and the radios cheerleading the killing) created a logic that was hard to dismantle. We often see people not like us as other, as not fully human; and our ordinary prejudices lead directly to mass murder (if we see a group of people as the cause of social turmoil, or of our personal pain, why wouldn’t we want them dead?). When and where in human history were there no murders of one group by another?
Family members can be cruel to each other, as can people living within the same culture; but it is easier to be cruel to someone for whom one expects to have no kindness, no commonality—a stranger, a member of a different group, as in The Merchant of Venice. William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, directed by Michael Radford, is a film of beautiful images, a film of dynamic people, well-appointed rooms, and lovely landscapes—a genuine world; and it begins in 1596 Venice, with men in boats, men burning books, and men persecuting Jews in the liberal city. Jews are locked in a ghetto at night, forced to wear a red hat during the day to mark their religion, and are prevented from owning property. While Christians were forbidden by law from loaning money for interest, Jews were not. The moneylender Shylock loaned money to people (Jewish lenders in Italy of the time were known to charge fifteen percent as fee); and sometimes the merchant Antonio helped to redeem their debts to Shylock; and when the film begins, we see Shylock (Al Pacino) call to Antonio (Jeremy Irons), and Antonio spits on Shylock. The open hostility is part of the time, as are women in long dresses with exposed breasts, day and night, possibly whores (though such a fashion did stand among women of various European classes for a time). Antonio has a friendly relationship with a nobleman, Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes); and we see the two men smile at each other, as Bassanio passes in a boat.
There is a religious observance—with Jewish men near the rebbe (teacher), while women watch from the synagogue balcony. It would be interesting to see more of this religious practice, to know more about what it means to be Jewish. Jews honor the Old Testament, which is called the Torah (torah means teaching), and is based on texts believed to have been given to Moses by divinity (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy); and Jews honor the Talmud, a collection of commentary dealing with holy days, agriculture, food, festivals, marriage, contracts, laws, sacrifices, and ideas of purity. One thinks of Jews, and thinks of land (Israel, Eastern Europe), language (Hebrew, Yiddish), food (unleavened bread, matzos, soups, potato pancakes, and not mixing milk and meat), music (traditional songs, classical music, klezmer), humor (a socially-aware, pretension-puncturing dark comedy; and a self-mocking wit), and sensibility (a mix of skepticism, acknowledgment of suffering, liberalism, sympathy, and investment in progress, with humor, attributes that, in various quantities, can account for both conservatism and modernism). It is easy to assume Jewish difference without explicating it; however, cultural forms have grown out of a particular religion and history and they are what have to be thought about if one wants to begin to know what being Jewish means. I have read that the religion forbids cruelty and being unforgiving, but that it also excuses a man for not forgiving transgressions involving financial claims that can be pursued in a court of law—and both of these ideas could have some bearing on The Merchant of Venice.
In Frank Kermode’s January 6, 2005 London Review of Books review of the film, Kermode commented, “Meanwhile the most intelligible behaviour and the most understandable melancholy are Shylock’s, though even his story is not as simple as it might be. One thing is clear: the play’s interest in the legality of usury. Shakespeare gives this matter a strong claim on the attention of the audience with the static early conversation between Shylock and Antonio (cut in the film, as often on the stage) concerning Jacob’s tricking of Laban in Chapter 30 of Genesis. Was Jacob cheating when he ensured that he got most of the lambs? The conventional answer was no: after all, Laban owed him at least as much as he got by the trick. But he took more than was due under their specific agreement. Shylock thinks this fair dealing and a good return on Jacob’s ingenuity. Antonio denies that the passage was ‘inserted’ to justify interest. On his view what Jacob did was something not within his own power; his success was ‘fashioned by the hand of heaven.’ The breeding of gold is not analogous to that of sheep; Jacob’s profit came not from interest but a legitimate venture.”
What is the relationship of the Jewish man or woman to others? In The Merchant of Venice
, Lorenzo picks up a lace handkerchief dropped by a young Jewish woman, Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. This seems at first as if it might be a matter of no importance, but we will learn differently. We are not told what became of Shylock’s wife, or if he had help rearing his daughter, or may have neglected Jessica in any way. A child becomes Jewish through its mother; and women have been often part of disputes between men, accompanied by fears of sexual betrayal and tribal disloyalty. Such concerns may involve Jessica, who is flirting with the Christian Lorenzo.
Antonio, the merchant, is sad, and says he does not know why. Is it business, friends ask, or love? As he is asked about love, we see Bassanio arrive by boat. There is a conversation between Antonio and Bassanio near a bed, a suggestive locale (they end up there as if it’s the most natural place for them to talk; and the film director Michael Radford has said that the crowding of the times turned bedrooms into reception areas). Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio speaks his lines beautifully—clearly, deeply, with feeling and understanding—but he lacks the lightness and sensuality he had in Shakespeare in Love. Bassanio talks about his debts; and Antonio says his purse and his person are open to his friend, who talks of Portia (Lynn Collins) and his rivals for her. Portia, coy, rich, sensuous, shrewd, and bound by circumstances, is having trouble choosing a husband. There is a contest her suitors must win, devised by her now dead father, utilizing three caskets, one of which each man must choose, and only one of which, the winning one, contains her photograph. Bassanio talks about the money he needs to travel to her, in order to win her hand. Antonio gives Bassanio a bill of credit; and Bassanio gives Antonio a kiss on the lips. Bassanio asks Shylock for three-thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio is to guarantee the loan. (Michael Radford has said that three-thousand ducats are equal to three-quarters of a million dollars.) Shylock—near scales weighing meat he is purchasing—talks of Antonio’s various business ventures. Antonio says that he does not borrow or loan money with interest (he is inclined to make an exception for Bassanio). The men—Antonio, Bassanio, and Shylock—go to Shylock’s office for usury rates. Shylock brings up the past insults he has received from Antonio; and Shylock says that for the loan he wants friendship—and if the loan is forfeited, a pound of Antonio’s flesh. For Shylock, the matter is personal, as well as professional, as his identity is tied to his religion and profession and he has been disrespected for both. Shylock is insisting that the matter be personal for the two men, personal not merely in their terms, as Bassanio and Antonio are already friends, but personal in Shylock’s terms (that is, that he be included in what is personal for the two men). The bargain is sealed at a notary; and that makes this matter one of law.
Other aspects of cultural difference: Shylock’s daughter, infatuated with Lorenzo, is willing to become a Christian. (Many Jews did not accept Jesus Christ as the promised messiah during the life of Christ, nor after his death—they saw him as a teacher, not a savior. Both Jews and Christians share belief in one god; and I suspect that belief in one god encourages rigidity of thought, while a belief in many gods, with each god representing a principal or life force, might encourage a certain tolerance for diversity of experience and expression.) One assumes Jessica’s love for Lorenzo is greater than her love for her father or her religion—and it is difficult not to read that as a betrayal, though she certainly has a right to love and an independent life. Disbelief—in inherited ideals—is both a liberation and an exile. One of Portia’s suitors is black, a Moroccan prince, who, somewhat comically chooses a box, the wrong one. (In the theater seated next to me, a white gay man gasped, seemingly at the prospect of the dark man winning fair Portia.)
Shylock is treated to dinner at Bassanio’s, before Bassanio leaves for Portia; and Shylock seems uncomfortable. (I suspect he sees he has not missed much; and that this is a waste of his time.) Meanwhile Lorenzo and his friends wait outside Shylock’s house, beneath Jessica’s window. Jessica is dressed as a boy—she seems to be taking money and a jewel box to elope with Lorenzo (the money and jewels, it will turn out, are not hers but her father’s). Lorenzo comments that Jessica looks good as a boy; and says he might suggest that other girls dress as boys.
Antonio gives Bassanio a send-off, for his trip to see Portia. Shylock arrives at his empty home, and weeps at the loss of Jessica and his property. Gentiles overhearing his lamentation mock him. There is news of sea disasters involving merchant ships—Antonio’s expected cargo—going down, making it unlikely that Antonio can pay his debt to Shylock. In Shylock’s speech—of pain and rage—he asks if he and his people are not as human as anyone and should not expect revenge as anyone might. Shylock says, “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?—fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?” That statement is an affirmation of a common humanity, and its details suggest a significant intelligence. Shylock continues, “If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.” He is asking why Jews should respond with more forgiveness when injured than others who do not forgive. It is an understandable question in most circumstances; but it is less understandable when revenge is a question for someone who claims to be led by a moral religious practice, such as a Jew or a Christian. Of what spiritual good is religion if it does not help people to be better, to be more sympathetically human? Isn’t this where religion often fails, in not aiding practical application of one’s own morality? Shylock asks, “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” (The lines are spoken in the film, but these quotes are from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Signet Classics, Penguin, New York, 2004; 49.)
Shylock hears that Jessica is said to have spent much money in one night (and Shylock cannot expect to retrieve his loss). Bassanio, meanwhile, chooses one of the caskets for Portia’s hand; and chooses well. Portia, acted with intelligence and sensuality by Lynn Collins, makes a speech of love and submission, heard by her friend Nerissa (with Nerissa’s hands over her own mouth, as if surprised by Portia’s intensity). Portia gives Bassanio a symbolic ring, a ring of binding, of engagement; and she asks him not to remove it from his finger.
Jessica, with Lorenzo, is in Portia’s house; and Lorenzo, being a friend of Bassanio, is a friend of Portia. Antonio writes to Bassanio of the upcoming legal case involving the penalty for the unpaid debt, but releases Bassanio of his debt to Antonio. Bassanio wants to go to his friend. Portia insists on marriage with Bassanio before he goes to attend Antonio (does she sense a conflict between friendship and love; or is she just excited by her love?). Portia is willing to repay the money owed to Shylock. She gives Lorenzo the run of her house in her absence: she and her attendant and friend, Nerissa, who has married one of Bassanio’s friends, Gratiano, go with a money chest to Venice.
Antonio is glad to see Bassanio; a smile of relief and love breaks through his torment. Shylock, who requests the execution of the penalty, is insulted and jeered, and spit upon by a court observer. Bassanio brings forth a chest of six-thousand ducats. Shylock insists upon his pound of flesh. Antonio is tied down in a chair; and asks for his friend’s hand. Bassanio says he would sacrifice wife and all for Antonio, not realizing that Portia, in disguise, as a law clerk, hears him. Shylock is allowed to take flesh, provided he does not take blood (blood is not prescribed in the signed bond); and the law is turned against him by Portia and he is made to forfeit his own property and made to convert to Christianity. Antonio proposes that Shylock maintain use of the property the state has won, but that Antonio use the portion of Shylock’s property that Antonio has won until Shylock’s death, at which time it will go to Jessica and Lorenzo. (Jews considered the laws of the land binding, as long as those laws did not conflict with religion—and one might imagine that a forced conversion is such a conflict, not to be honored, though here it is honored.) In gratitude for the legal decision, and with Antonio’s questionable encouragement (Antonio knows not the binds or bounds of marriage and cannot imagine the trust involved; he sets friendship against love), Bassanio gives up his ring to the law clerk, the disguised Portia, the ring he said would not leave his finger. When Bassanio and his friend Gratiano arrive at Portia’s island estate, both men ringless despite their promises to their new brides, there is a comic interrogation and resolution, before the film ends, in Venice, with Shylock outside the door of the synagogue, his own part in the play a tragedy.
Stanley Kauffmann, in his January 24, 2005 review of The Merchant of Venice, noted various obvious differences between theater and film (such as language versus image), and wrote that “The Merchant sets the harrowing story of Shylock against the romantic comedy of Bassanio and Portia. In the theater the contrast can be affecting. On screen those comedic elements simply look phony.” I understand what Kauffmann means but I do not agree, as I think much in the play—not only the contest of caskets, and argument over the engagement rings, and Jessica, Portia, and Nerissa’s masquerading as males, but also Shylock’s pound of flesh—is metaphorical, is a theatrical presentation of ideas and feelings. The symbols and signs in the play represent choice, taste, wisdom; fidelity; the fluidity of gender, the flawed perception of men; and a life held in the balance of personal and legal decisions. One might see Shylock as passion and Portia as reason, or see Shylock as business and Portia as sympathy; or Bassanio as the self-centeredness of youth and Antonio as the generosity of age—and the whole story as an allegory. (One might see also certain aspects of Shylock’s story as black comedy—his boredom as he dines with Bassanio, his promising to excel at and exceed the lesson of vengeance he has learned from Christians, and his surprise at the judgment he gets in court at the end: expectations are mocked.) What is real in the play are amusement, joy, friendship, infatuation, cruelty, suffering, and rage; and a pervasive, sumptuous intelligence. Kauffmann maintained, regarding the possible anti-Semitism of the text, that “no amount of wishful thinking can shift this play from the social attitudes of the author’s day into Shylock’s tragedy. The best that can be said here in defense of the greatest writer who ever lived is that he gave his Jew a character and a rationale.”
It is not only Shakespeare’s talent that renders Shylock, Othello, Hamlet, and Macbeth memorable; it is also that we recognize the unique vitality—the energy, feelings, ideas, and will—of these characters, as they embody drives and conflicts we see around us or feel within us. Shakespeare’s characters want acceptance, love, knowledge, money, power, justice; and they want to defeat their enemies, who are simply those who obstruct them. Further, we often see our own errors—ethical, intellectual, political, or practical—as deviation from our fundamental intention or purpose, as not representative of our value or potential, as not symbolic of who we are, while being inclined to see the mistakes of others, especially of strangers, as expressions of or fulfillments of their character. Is Shylock an evil man, or a man who wants a thing that seems evil? Whether we see Shylock as a villain depends on what we assume to be his basic character and philosophy. I did not see Shylock as a villain, though he is referred to by other characters in Shakespeare’s play as a villain and a fiend and has been interpreted and played on stage and film that way in the past. Shylock, as performed by Al Pacino, is a man who has been forced to be practical about most things; and practicality in certain matters is brutality (a brutality to self and to others). Shylock was relentless and unforgiving, but that I understood: years of mistreatment, and the pain of losing a daughter, enraged him—and he wanted to see the laws of society act on his own behalf against one of its privileged members. It was rather refreshing to see this urge made bare, and a shock to see him lose so much, though if he had gotten his pound of flesh that would have been terrible and unforgivable. I left the theater thinking about how the ways of society were against Shylock, and how this made it difficult for Shakespeare to produce a scenario that would be received as unrealistic, a scenario that would gratify Shylock, the insulted businessman, the abandoned father, the persecuted Jew. Shylock is alone at the end of the play, without family or community, nor secure property: and that seems more than anything the image of a willful man who followed his own anger to folly.
The dominance of General Francisco Franco (1892-1975) in Spain—Franco became head of state in 1936 and he was dictator by 1939—was considered culturally and politically repressive. Pedro Almodovar has said that he wanted to make films as if Franco had not existed—and one can believe that of What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Law of Desire (1987), and others of Almodovar’s early anarchic films. (Those two films named, and 1999’s somewhat somber All About My Mother, are my favorite of Almodovar’s films.) Almodovar’s Bad Education is a trip back in time; and it is a story of young love, sexual exploitation, personal ambition, family unhappiness, and fatal immorality. The story, involving pedophile priests, boys in love, an amoral actor, a self-indulgent director, and several transvestites, follows the retelling of childhood incidents and their influence on contemporary lives. The selfish sexual desires and tormenting emotional doubt that can color relationships are dominant. What is real; what is fiction? The film becomes most compelling toward the end, when the nature of reality is revealed as strangely conventional, a film noir, a film about ambition, lust, guilt, and death. Bad Education stars Gael Garcia Bernal, beautiful, creative, instinctive, and transgressive; and it is possible to believe Garcia Bernal will be a Spanish-language Johnny Depp (Garcia Bernal has been quoted as admiring Marcello Mastroianni, Klaus Kinski, and Daniel Day-Lewis). Gael Garcia Bernal, the son of stage actors, grew up in Guadalajara and Mexico City; and he studied film in New York, Cuba, and London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Garcia Bernal, who also starred in Amores Perros (2000) and The Crime of Father Amaro (2002), can be silly (Y Tu Mama Tambien, 2001) or serious (The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004), and look handsome or ordinary; and his performance here has many dimensions. Intelligent, well-informed, and politically aware, Garcia Bernal said that some of his Bad Education collaborators, in Spain, had attitudes that seemed colonialist and patronizing (it’s important to note that Almodovar has unexamined ideas about Mexico and sexual identity). Garcia Bernal has spoken of his dedication to Latin American film, and has begun his own film production company with actor Diego Luna, his childhood friend. In Bad Education, Gael Garcia Bernal plays an actor with a story he wants told; and he makes being a chameleon a seductive danger.
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