Wilde Salomé (2011)

Wilde Salomé (2011)
  • Time: 95 min
  • Genre: Documentary | Drama
  • Director: Al Pacino
  • Cast: Al Pacino, Jessica Chastain, Kevin Anderson


Referred to by actor/director Al Pacino as his most personal project ever, the unconventional feature documentary “Wilde Salome” invites audiences into Pacino’s private world, as he explores the complexities of Oscar Wilde’s acclaimed play “Salome,” Wilde himself and the birth of a rising star in actress Jessica Chastain.

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  • There is just no sense in pretending that anything else matters in Al Pacino’s documentary feature Wilde Salomé other than Jessica Chastain. Only 25 and a mere unknown when this was filmed in 2006, Chastain burns so bright in her film debut that it would have been a mystery of the highest order for her not to have the career she has today.

    Wilde Salomé is a story about obsession, as its opening title card declares. It is about the obsession Princess Salomé possesses for John the Baptist, and the obsession her stepfather King Herod has for his virginal stepdaughter. More pressingly, it is the obsession that dominates Pacino as he attempts to mount a reading of Oscar Wilde’s most controversial play, capture that reading on film over the course of five shooting days, and ensure that all of the above is tracked for this documentary. It’s an enormous task for the often anguished actor, who desires to grab hold of that most ephemeral and untamable of animals: inspiration.

    “Something happened to me when I saw this play,” Pacino explains. “I felt as though I had found a friend.” These words come right at the breaking point when the magnitude of his passion project threatens to incapacitate him. By this time, Pacino is locked into presenting the play as a reading in modern dress (“Just podiums and words.”), an interpretation that proves difficult to accept for most of the theatergoing audience, who have paid a princely sum to experience a proper staging. He has immersed himself in the playwright’s troubled life, traveling to Wilde’s birthplace in Ireland as well as the hotel room in Paris where Wilde died of cerebral meningitis, a consequence of the ear infection he developed whilst imprisoned on charges of sodomy and gross indecency.

    Pacino and several talking heads – Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal, and Tony Kushner, to name a few – flesh out the details of Wilde’s scandalous love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, better known as “Bosie” to friends and family, an affair that would prove Wilde’s undoing. (Seek out 1997’s excellent Wilde starring Stephen Fry in the title role and Jude Law as Bosie.) Noting the themes of lust, obsession, and betrayal in the play, many remark upon the almost prophetic nature of the work, as if Wilde could somehow sense what was about to befall him.

    Like its star, the documentary tries to wrangle with too many things at once. Good job then to editors David Leonard and Roberto Silvi for taking so many disparate pieces and creating a film that isn’t as disjointed as it should be. There are so many elements that warrant extended focus: any scene with cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, whose interactions with Pacino are confused and lighthearted; the chicken-and-egg discussions between film producer Barry Navidi and stage producer Robert Fox as they negotiate for Pacino’s time (Navidi says the only reason Pacino is doing the film is because of the play, while Fox remarks Pacino is only doing the play so he can make the movie); and dissections of characters, motivations, and even lighting changes between Pacino, Chastain, and stage director Estelle Parsons.

    Honestly, the entire film could have centered around Chastain, who proves a formidable presence in both the film excerpts and the behind-the-scenes footage. She makes for an utterly transfixing Salomé, seamlessly transitioning from innocent to seductress to absolute monster, and unleashing a genuinely fearsome display of raw carnality.

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