Al Pacino Goes Italian, Bonds With Oscar Wilde in Venice Movie

Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain
Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain perform Oscar Wilde's play ''Salome'' in the movie ''Wilde Salome.'' It had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Source: Venice Film Festival via Bloomberg.

Al Pacino sparked collective hysteria last night at the Venice Film Festival, as he picked up a lifetime achievement award and screened his personal tribute to Oscar Wilde.

“Wilde Salome,” is a mixed bag: a documentary about the author, a filming of Wilde’s play “Salome,” and a diary of Pacino’s directing adventures. Pacino, a 71-year-old Italian-American, cheerily pays visits to Wilde’s old haunts, and interviews U2’s Bono, a Wilde enthusiast.

At his red-carpet premiere, the actor -- sporting a goatee, a black suit, and an open-neck black shirt -- collected a trophy and a watch as the 2011 winner of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award (which Sylvester Stallone won in 2009). In a brief speech, Pacino broke into what sounded only remotely like Italian.

“What am I doing standing here speaking English?” said the actor. “I’m an Italian, for God’s sake!” The audience clapped and roared back, “grande Al!”

Confessing he’d forgotten his lines, he pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket to describe his movie, then gave up and said, “See what you think, OK?”

Hours earlier, before an assembly of reporters, Pacino removed his blazer to reveal a white shirt so shiny it looked like polyester. The moderator asked him to define “Wilde Salome.”

Film Confusion

“I guess what I tried to do is create a story, but you’re quite right, I don’t know what it is,” said the self-deprecating star. “I’d like to say it’s a documentary and it’s not a film, but it’s not a documentary either, so I’m confused too.”

By examining the life of Wilde and linking it to “the struggles we were having to put a play on,” Pacino said, he hoped “it would be revealed by the end of the movie what I was trying to say. Well, at least it would have been revealed to me.”

Besides greeting one reporter with “buongiorno,” Pacino showed a lack of fluency in his parents’ native tongue. He later admitted to speaking only “double-talk Italian” -- even though he felt “Italian inside,” and was known for gesturing too much on movie sets.

Pacino was inspired to make the movie when he saw the play “Salome” in London. It resonated deeply, as did the life story of Wilde.

Translucent Dress

The other catalyst was Jessica Chastain -- the actress recently praised for her role in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” She is Pacino’s Salome, the Biblical temptress who demands St. John the Baptist’s head on a plate. In the climactic scene, the tall red-head shakes off her translucent red dress and shimmies frenziedly, half-naked.

Chastain said “Salome” was her first movie, and said Pacino taught her acting tricks that she applied in “Tree of Life.” He was an unintrusive director, she said, and after a year of read-throughs of her part in New York and Los Angeles, “he shot it, like, in a week and a half!”

The film has plenty of talking heads, including Wilde’s grandson; the playwright Tom Stoppard; and the writer Gore Vidal, who describes Wilde as “one of the early socialists,” whose ideas were more feared than his homosexuality.

To Bono, Wilde draws “not just gay people: anyone who feels their part in society is being marginalized.”

At the news conference, Pacino was asked what he would do next. He joked that his future was “blank.”

“I always say that I’m going to be selective, but I never am,” he said with a grin. His “resolution” with movie proposals now, he said, was that “I’m going to do it only when I feel it’s the thing to do for me.”

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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