LOOKING FOR RICHARD (1996) *** 1/2
Al Pacino's first movie as a director is an original, mesmerizing exploration. The Richard of the title is Shakespeare's character Richard III as well as the eponymous play. Pacino has made a documentary about a stage production-in-progress, one that involves himself as director and as actor in the title role, plus a host of other people: performers in this production as well as performers not in it, but who have experience with Shakespeare and opinions to share; writers; producers; consultants; scholars. . . the list is long. It even includes people casually met on the street and who are queried about Shakespeare or their lack of knowledge of the Bard. (Many amusing reactions occur).
You don't have to look closely to realize that this labor of love is a busman's holiday. It must have occupied free snatches of time over a period of years. There are clues to this, such as the changing looks of some participants, the presence of actress Viveca Lindfors who died in 1995, or the Pacino's hirsuteness that can differ from one scene to the next.
What Pacino and Company try to do is to unscramble Richard III by approaching it with as much understanding and as many insights as possible. The result is a crazy quilt that explains, elucidates, discusses, simplifies or sometimes complicates matters as they crop up. This may have been like haphazard patchwork so far as the filming goes, but the excellent and very hard editing has given hidden logic and relatively coherent structure to this fascinating chaos.
From the start, the method in the madness becomes apparent. "Now is the Winter of our discontent" is analyzed and explained in terms of the War of the Roses, the Yorks and Lancasters. Later the iambic pentameter is illustrated (as a response to Pacino's falsely naive question) via amusing da-da-dee-dums.
A refrain pops up often, to the effect that "this is a very complicated play," which it is, not only for the director and the actors but for audiences, especially lay, what with the many characters in a dedalus of ambitions, real or false alliances, overt or covert enmities, and the maze of history as Shakespeare saw it. So far as I remember, the word "complex" is used either little or not at all, and rightly so: the play which is there are either few or no mentions of "complex," in the discussions, and rightly so.
The text is submitted to deconstruction, from which hang the interpretations , so that Shakespeare becomes attainable and more "enjoyable" from artistic, esthetic, poetic, psychological and historical points of view. The result is that staggering genius of the Bard is better felt and comprehended yet, in a paradoxical way, even more mysterious. And even though sometimes scholars are pitted against players, there is a common ground of admiration for the playwright.
As Pacino says (I imagine this applied to both actors and audiences), "You don't have to understand every word. You get the gist of it. " This brings me to "Looking for Richard" as a film for non-native-English speaking audiences. It was shown at Cannes last spring, where it was complimented, but I have my doubts as to the comprehension of it via subtitles. The language of Shakespeare plus the vernacular of the discussions require linguistic familiarity. They make of "Looking" the opposite of silent movies and their universality through images and simple intertitles.
On the other hand, thanks to the back-and-forth shifts between stage, backstage and real life, the mechanisms of stagecraft are so unveiled that the effect is one pure Brechtian distanciation, reinforced (for some viewers) by Richard becoming a precursor of the villain in the parable by Bertolt Brecht "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," in which a gangster gains power in Chicago.
There are several views of what the purpose of "Looking" is. One opinion is that Pacino, who has distinguished himself on the stage (including many performances as Richard), was anxious to prove his theatrical skills to the wide public that knows only the movie side of him. This may be the case, but would that such polite vanity were more common and result in many more "intellectual" and literate movies!
Another belief holds that "Looking" is an introduction to Shakespeare which, by stressing the humanity of the performers and demystifying "difficulties" makes the play accessible to neophytes. I cannot share this perception. It seems to me that a beginner, the street-person as it were, or a young student, may identify with or at least recognize certain universals in the Bard, but will not get the full impact. I believe that, willy-nilly, Pacino is talking to the already converted -- though not necessarily the specialists -- whose eyes will open more both to Shakespeare's work and to the actors'.
I also see "Looking" as a direct-approach (and subsequent choices in editing) work of the cinema-verite school, a documentary about a play that, in its day, was, in its action and plot (though not its language) a precursor of a "film noir," with its dark moods, twists, murders and treasons.
What we see of the "finished" Richard III is only a fraction of the stage-play. It comes to us in fragments, yet cleverly shows a number of telling, full episodes, such as the murders of Clarence and of Hastings or the killing of the Princes in the Tower -- all riveting, all powerfully suspenseful and touching.
Among the many bonuses of the film is its healthy discussion of the American feeling of inferiority vis-a-vis the British when it comes to doing Shakespeare, a feeling that lies a great deal in differences of accents and intonations. I only wish someone had mentioned that the performers of Shakespeare's day did not speak BBC or Oxbridgian English!
Here, not one actor falls into the trap of trying to sound ersatz-British, nor, happily, does anyone have a regional accent, whether from Brooklyn, the South, the West or New England. It all comes down to a convincing demonstration that Americans can deal with Shakespeare without having to tend apologies.
If anyone had been told that Pacino would employ familiar movie people (Kevin Spacey, Adan Quinn, Alec Baldwin, Winona Ryder and others), the first reaction would have been "How incongruous!" if not "How dumb!" Yet, in spite of this novelty of casting, those performers are surprisingly good and convincing. If nothing else, "Looking" revolutionizes our preconceptions, our expectations and widely-held beliefs that our own movie actors cannot shift from screen to stage the way the British have been doing for close to one century, to their advantage and to the benefit of both media.
The experienced Pacino plays with a great deal of nuances as he searches for "his" Richard. Sometimes, like the movie Pacino (say, the son of Godfather Brando), he is hollow-eyed, contained and menacingly quiet. But often too he reclaims his Italian-American ancestry and the passion that goes into flamboyant outbursts.
The atmosphere of the film is one of fascinating peeps into the collaborative nature of plays. This is not devoid of humor. For example, Kevin Spacey, whether as a civilian or in costume, maintains a delightful look of skepticism or irony. Pacino shows a big, heavy book, "The Annotated Shakespeare" and puns on "The Anointed Shakespeare. " And when King Edward finally dies, he lies in state with coins over his eyes, like a Mafioso Capo.