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Movie Review: 'Salome' & 'Wilde Salome'

Al Pacino discovered Jessica Chastain in 'Salome' and 'Wilde Salome'.

The mercurial Al Pacino decades ago passed into self-parody. It was a sad passing, watching one of the most powerful and fascinating actors in movie history begin to rely on bellowing, over-the-top nonsense rather than investing in his actual talent. Perhaps he thought that the bellowing nonsense was always his performative style, perhaps he feels that we changed and he didn’t, but the bottom line is, it’s all been downhill since one of Pacino’s worst performances, Scent of a Woman, was awarded an Academy Award.

The documentaries and plays Wilde Salome and Salome give us some insight into what changed in Al Pacino. It can actually be pegged to the start of Pacino’s career all the way back in the 1960s when he was treading the boards of Broadway. Pacino arrived at the tail end of when film was transitioning from the stage style acting of Kirk Douglas and Marlon Brando into the more realistic, earthy style of Robert DeNiro.

Watching Pacino in Salome is watching Pacino truly in his element. The bombastic style of the stage fits Pacino’s desire to belt every performance to the back of the room. Playing King Herod, Pacino is able to bluster and bellow, lay on thick, strange accents, and indulge his stage-honed acting instincts that have become rather obsolete in modern movie making.

The story of Salome was written by the legendary Oscar Wilde and in the documentary that accompanies Pacino’s filmed play Salome, we join Pacino on a trip through Wilde’s life from where he was born in England to his death in a Paris hotel. Wilde Salome is equally bizarre and fascinating, reminiscent of one of my favorite movie-making documentaries, Terry Gilliam’s doomed Don Quixote doc Lost in La Mancha.

We watch in Wilde Salome as Pacino laments the life of Oscar Wilde, slipping strangely into character as Wilde before seeking out a Wilde statue and carrying on a conversation with it. It’s clear that Pacino is engrossed in the life of Oscar Wilde but what Pacino is actually connecting to is a little unclear. Pacino remains a strange and obtuse figure and while we know so much about the life of Oscar Wilde, we know little about the life of Pacino and the lack of personal insight into what brings the actor to the writer he calls his obsession, keeps Wilde Salome at an odd distance from the audience.

As for the filmed play or stage reading, depending on your perspective, Salome is remarkable. Say what you will about where Pacino is in his career, in 2006 he saw in Jessica Chastain what the rest of the world would not see for some five years when she began breaking through to the mainstream. It was Pacino and play director Estelle Parsons who gave Chastain her biggest role to date in 2006 and Chastain rewarded them with a fiery, commanding performance as the Princess known for the deadly dance of the seven veils.

Even with Pacino’s at times strange and strangely compelling performance as Herod, Chastain is the actor who dominates the screen. When she calls for the head of John the Baptist following her transformative, sexy, and terrifying dance, watch her eyes, listen to the perfect register of her voice. Chastain is chilling in this moment and the way she repeatedly uses John the Baptist’s real name, Jokannon as a spiteful curse, she’s incredibly powerful, more so for this having been her first starring stage role.

Chastain is the perfect actress to deliver the acid-tongued dialogue of Oscar Wilde through the filmic prism of Al Pacino. Her performance is the perfect combination of Wilde’s dark wit and Pacino’s volcanic showiness. Salome would succeed with just about any actress but Chastain takes the role and the play to a whole other level of greatness. In fact, Wilde Salome suffers for not enough behind the scenes shots of Chastain’s presence.

After having been produced in 2006 and released separately in 2011 and 2013, Wilde Salome and Salome are now being shown together in limited theatrical runs in major markets. There is no word yet on when the two features will be released on home video platforms.