Film Review: Salomé

Al Pacino’s film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 'Salomé' benefits considerably from uniformly strong performances and some consummate technical craftsmanship.
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Al Pacino directs and stars in this film version of Oscar Wilde’s play, intended as a companion piece to the filmmaker’s documentary project Wilde Salomé. One of the biggest drawbacks to this state of affairs is that long sections of the filmed play already appear in the documentary, which makes for a bit of lopsided bias, taking up a lot of room that might’ve been better spent providing contextual information. This is doubly the case when you stop to consider the fact that Pacino always intended to release this film separately.

Although Salomé is arguably Oscar Wilde’s least known play, this isn’t the first time it has been committed to film. As mentioned in Wilde Salomé, Steven Berkoff’s production from the 1990s, which Pacino admits cast a considerable spell, was recorded for posterity. And then there’s Salome’s Last Dance, in which the always outrageous Ken Russell stages the play in a brothel, with Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred (“Bosie”) Douglas, in attendance.

Wilde’s play luridly expands upon a rather terse anecdote from the New Testament: King Herod’s virginal stepdaughter Salomé (nameless in the Biblical accounts) performs the Dance of the Seven Veils in exchange for the Tetrarch granting her heart’s desire. What Salomé wants more than anything, as it develops, is the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Wilde takes the Gospels’ dry recitation of facts and converts them into a decadent poetic fable of irrepressible desire and violence, in which the bloody events transpire to the lasting detriment of everyone involved.

Pacino’s vision for Salomé occupies a sort of middle ground when it comes to filming a stage play. He doesn’t attempt to “open up” the play by taking full advantage of the film medium, not to mention availing himself of actual locations in which to set his scenes, in the ways that James Foley managed so brilliantly with David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Yet Salomé isn’t entirely stagebound. Pacino grafts on some exterior footage of the desert locale (as seen in Wilde Salomé) at the start of the film and, from time to time, cuts away to strange meteorological events, which are represented by some pretty low-rent CGI.

Whether or not Salomé in fact represents a true fusion of the two mediums, as Pacino has claimed in interviews, remains a matter of subjective interpretation. Mileage may vary. At the very least, Pacino’s film is executed with flawless technical craftsmanship. Jeff Beal’s intense music adds immeasurably to the overall mood of menace and impending doom. And ace cameraman Benoît Delhomme captures the expressionistic lighting scheme, dominated by icy blues and incarnadine reds, with consummate focus and clarity.

What’s more, the film is graced with a quartet of strong performances. Pacino plays Herod as a deceptively fey, capricious tyrant, masking reserves of playful intelligence and consummate cunning. Jessica Chastain is simply stunning as Salomé, navigating the character’s measured transformation from virginal innocent to bloodthirsty wanton with impressive control and nuance. Kevin Anderson’s Jokanaan (John the Baptist) bellows his prophetic imprecations with impressive menace. Though she’s given less to do, Roxanne Hart invests Herod’s wife Herodias with the conspiratorial calculation of a Lady Macbeth.

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