Film Review: Wilde Salomé

Al Pacino’s documentary 'Wilde Salomé' proves to be more satisfying as an examination of Oscar Wilde and his play than as an exploration of Pacino’s theatrical methodology.
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With Wilde Salomé, Al Pacino returns to territory he first staked out in Looking for Richard. That film should be considered a docudrama in the most literal sense of the term, a heady brew that lashed together historical investigation into a play, its author and their milieu (in this instance, Shakespeare’s Richard III) with a master class in stagecraft, Pacino-style. Wilde Salomé turns this technique on the late Victorian dramatist and celebrated wit Oscar Wilde’s least-known play, which converts an anecdote from the New Testament about King Herod and his stepdaughter Salomé into a decadent fable of irrepressible lust and violence.

But Pacino isn’t content to merely reproduce his earlier success. This time out, he’s looking to simultaneously mount a production of Salomé at the historic Wadsworth Theatre in L.A., make a film of the play in less than a week, and also compile a documentary about it all. So if Wilde Salomé ultimately proves a bit less compelling and a lot more scattershot than Looking for Richard, that’s probably because Pacino has stretched himself a little thin. Then again, one of the film’s incidental pleasures lies precisely in watching Pacino, at this late stage of his career akin to a walking icon, work under something that approaches pressure.

In the first part of Wilde Salomé, Pacino makes a harried pilgrimage to various locations that were significant in Wilde’s life. Pacino communes with a life-sized statue of the author outside his birthplace in Dublin, visits London’s Cadogan Hotel, where Wilde was arrested on charges of homosexual misconduct, and the hotel in Paris where he spent his final days in penurious solitude and misery. Everywhere he goes, as you might suspect, Pacino is swarmed by fans. And it’s always fascinating to watch him handle that aspect of his celebrity. Particularly funny is the bit where he mimics the notorious “little friend” scene from Scarface to an admirer in the middle of the hushed Irish National Gallery.

This portion of the film is straightforward (albeit informative) documentary filmmaking in form and content, interspersed with authoritative talking heads—Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, contemporary writers like Gore Vidal and Tom Stoppard—opining on aspects of Wilde’s life and legacy. More intriguing is Pacino’s slant on Wilde: that he was, for all intents and purposes, a self-made martyr to the cause of personal freedom. It makes you wonder exactly how this depiction relates to Pacino’s professed fraternal feelings for Wilde. Speculation of this sort is only complicated by the strangely dissonant spectacle of Pacino at 71 playing the forty-something Wilde in a recreation of the hours leading up to Wilde’s arrest.

When it comes to the 2006 staging of Salomé at the Wadsworth, Pacino’s film comes to feel a bit rushed and incomplete. A lot of the incidental details that would have made for an engrossing glimpse into the backstage process are either glossed over or else omitted entirely. Context seems lacking. We don’t know whether Pacino or stage director Estelle Parsons (or both) made the decision to pare the production down to a staged reading—or even exactly why, apart from a stray comment about focusing on the poetry of the dialogue. At any rate, the choice turns out to be a disastrous one, prompting bad notices and patrons’ requests for refunds. Pacino flirting with disaster would seem material ripe for self-analysis, but, perhaps understandably, the actor-filmmaker proves unwilling to pursue that thread.

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