Friday, March 23, 2012

Wilde Salomé

The Majestic Jessica Chastain, In Pacino's Tragicomedy

Jessica Chastain as Salomé in the Oscar Wilde play "Salomé", as captured on film by Al Pacino, in "Wilde Salomé". 
Salomé Productions


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, March 23
, 2012

Though it was given on stage in 2006, I can't imagine a better performance captured on film that Jessica Chastain has ever given than her extraordinary work in Al Pacino's "Wilde Salomé", which had its U.S. premiere this week in San Francisco.  To my best knowledge this is the first film Ms. Chastain starred in, and whenever "Wilde Salomé" finally gets a genuine U.S. theatrical release, audiences will see just how great she is in it.

Unfortunately, Mr. Pacino's documentary is not about Ms. Chastain, who plays the legendary playwright and wit Oscar Wilde's character Salomé on stage in Estelle Parsons' theatre direction at the Wadsworth Theatre in Los Angeles.  Nor does it offer up Ms. Chastain's unfiltered perspective on her character.  (She mentions a thing or two about Salomé, but that's about all.)  Even so, "Wilde Salomé" is brilliant and fascinating, with Mr. Pacino playing multiple roles, including as raconteur and anguished director stressed about trying to achieve the near impossible -- capture in five shooting days the spontaneity of the 90-minute read-through play Ms. Parsons directs while he stars in it as Herod, and make Ms. Parsons' theatrical production look and feel like a film -- all at the same time.  When the iconic actor verbalizes what he endeavors to do, we're flabbergasted.

Yet impossible is nothing, as the phrase goes, and Mr. Pacino goes to some lengths to not only get the play staged as cinema but also to understand and immerse himself in his idol Oscar Wilde.  He travels to Ireland, the birth place of Mr. Wilde, giving us a thorough lesson on the personal life and accomplishments of the writer, who passed at age 46 in 1900.  Uninitiated viewers will learn of Mr. Wilde's dual lives, his awakening and rediscovering of self, his passions, his affairs, his works (particularly "Salomé", which Mr. Wilde wrote when he was still in his twenties, and in French no less, his second language.  A play dubbed "scandalous", "Salomé" was banned in a number of places.)  Mr. Pacino also pays his own personal homage to Mr. Wilde, saluting him on a number of occasions and giving insights to the things that connect him as a bread-and-butter thespian to Mr. Wilde.  "Thank you so much.  I am in debt to you.  So much debt," Mr. Pacino says sincerely, looking at a statue of Mr. Wilde perched on a wall.

In much the same vein as "Looking For Richard" (1996), "Wilde Salomé" captures the artist as explorer, as stager, as crisis-engager and performer.  "Wilde Salomé" is well-balanced, and its writer-director Mr. Pacino knows when to take his foot off the gas pedal and put on the brakes when things become either too intense or too irreverent.  Usually the contrasts are abrupt.  One minute you are plunged into a cauldron of heat, tension, violence, the forbidden, the sexual.  Then you're thrown into a speeding train with Mr. Pacino thoughtfully exploring Wilde's works, hungering for more, shaping his own vision.  Or wisecracking.  "Imagine me as Oscar Wilde," says Mr. Pacino, his face in close-up.  "Someone's got to do it."

Clearly a personal project, "Wilde Salomé" is an ambitious and entertaining work.  It's a cheeky mix of comedy, dramatic tension, education and fan-idol worship, both on stage and off.  When Mr. Pacino is in Ireland he is playfully mocked by one fan, who reprises a moment from "Scarface", which gets the actor smiling.  It's a wink-nod in the double-sided mirror of art and life.  Idol idolized by idol, who himself is idolized.

There's great stagecraft in the grainy off-stage parts of "Wilde Salomé", which are shot with a hand-held HD digital camera.  Some of the funniest parts of the film come in the documentary segments especially from Gore Vidal, as he opines about Mr. Wilde's chief male lover.  Playwright Tom Stoppard and U2 front man Bono also provide humorous insights.  In some respects this segment of the film is Pacino as mockumentary man, honing his own natural born theater skills into a comedy of honesty and bluster, enlivening a genre that can often be so self-serious and pedantic.  Mr. Pacino never lets himself get that way however during "Wilde Salomé", though he does come close to letting the audience in on his own neuroses as an actor as he prepares his Herod. 

"Wilde Salomé" is about obsession and passion: Mr. Pacino's as well as the title character's in Mr. Wilde's "Salomé", and a document of Mr. Wilde's obsessions.  There are notable moments with Mr. Pacino's producer Barry Nevidi as they discuss the film process and money.  "It's all about money," the actor says.  Scenes with Mr. Pacino's French cinematographer Benôit Delhomme are pure fun.  Mr. Delhomme throws up his hands and rolls his eyes in puzzlement and frustration at some of the director's commands, but we see Mr. Pacino direct with a serious, no-frills fervor.  There's a playful smile from Ms. Chastain after the actor gives her direction, and I wasn't sure if she was being eager to please or getting in on a joke she may have been playing to. 

So acutely and cleverly crafted is "Wilde Salomé" that it often feels like a huge in-joke, and maybe it is.  But there's no joke about Mr. Pacino's total commitment to this fine, charismatic and engaging film, or to Mr. Wilde or Ms. Parsons (with whom he butts heads, pacifying her with a "darling".)  He's all-in, one thousand percent.  Mr. Pacino vigorously and joyously captures the thirst of life and the zeal of living in the moment and in memory, through centuries, in process and in the here-and-now.  It's the theater of theater, somewhat satirical but always well-intended and sincere.  Mr. Pacino's work symbolizes and represents the absurdity of ambition, the nature of desire and the recklessness of both, and he succeeds on each and every level of adventure and direction that his restless, relentless wandering soul takes him.

Inevitably though, it's worth returning to Ms. Chastain.  She is commanding, dazzling, sexy, penetrating and haunting as Salomé, the stepdaughter Herod lusts after.  At all times she had me in the palm of her hand.  It's a confident and fearless stage performance, powerfully delivered and uncompromised for a like character.  Ms. Chastain's excellent work here is one of the best efforts I've seen in a number of years, a performance that is so startlingly alive.  There's full-blood, guts and body to Ms. Chastain's Salomé, and she thunders in a superb tour-de-force.  Mr. Pacino's 35mm cameras succeed in making Ms. Chastain's stage work a memorable cinematic showcase, and it's vibrant and indelible. 

Though theatre's here-and-now dynamic is ephemeral and immediate, Mr. Pacino captures a blood-lusting Salomé in Ms. Chastain that lingers and is intense and unsettling, yet transfixing and glorious, etched in the mind long after the film's end credits arrive.  Mr. Pacino transcends theatre better here than he ordinarily does on the big screen in strictly theatrical performances.  And as Herod on stage he stirs lust, torment, despair and compassion, writhing in them all in equal measure, resigned to his station as a guilty facilitator of taboo and desires of varying carnality. 

Herod promises to deliver anything Salomé desires but first she must dance.  Over the objections of her mother (a fine Roxanne Hart) she complies.  Salomé wants the imprisoned Jockhaanan aka John The Baptist's head on a platter, and will stop at nothing until (and even after) she gets it.  The hedonistic Herod tries distractions and all the gold and glass-encrusted slippers and trinkets in the world, but alas, in vain.  That head will roll!

With: Kevin Anderson, Jack Huston, Geoffrey Owens, Poncho Hodges.

"Wilde Salomé" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America but contains nudity, sexuality, disturbing scenes containing bloody violence, and language.  The film's running time is one hour and 36 minutes.

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