Director Al Pacino weaves together documentary, theatre and movie footage in this film where he examines the life of Oscar Wilde, his play Salomé and – inadvertently – his own obsessions.
At the official screening of Wilde Salomé at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, Al Pacino urged the audience to enjoy the film, even though he did not know quite what he was doing when he made it. Wilde Salomé is messy and chaotic, but this is the reason why the film works.
While staging a theatre version of Salomé, Pacino decided to make a movie of the material at the same time with the same cast. While staging the play at night and filming the movie during the day, Pacino also makes a record of his own struggle on the project. As he travels around the world to discover more about Wilde, Pacino stops in Paris and London, as well as Dublin – the birthplace of Wilde – to give a talk at Trinity College and gain some understanding of the man whose work he exploring. Pacino then weaves this with interviews and conversations with Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal, Bono and others. This section of the film allows the audience to learn with Pacino as he goes on his journey, and gain an insight into why Wilde has become the iconic figure that he is today.
The rest of the film revolves around the staging of the play and filming the movie. Pacino puts his actors through their paces as he rehearses with them and discovers the right staging choices for the material. Jessica Chastain takes on the title role of Salomé in both productions, and she is mesmerising. In Chastain, Pacino has found an actress who captures the ruthlessness and innocence of the woman who demanded the head of John the Baptist after he spurned her advances. Salomé is both virginal and explicitly sexual, and during the movie sequences it is hard for the audience to take their gaze from Chastain as she dominates the screen.
As we learn about Wilde, we also learn about Pacino and the personal obsession that drive him to take on this mammoth project. He is frayed and tightly wound off stage, but as soon as he inhabits the character of Herod, the director slips away to allow the character to come to the fore.
Wilde Salomé is an odd, messy whirlwind, and for those who are not enthralled by movies and the work that goes into creating them, it may be a somewhat alienating experience. This is a passion project laid bare on the screen – warts and all – and it obvious that this film is borne out of Pacino’s personal obsessions. Wilde Salomé is a fascinating examination of a man, a director and a playwright, as well as a chance for audiences to see one of Wilde’s most tragic and prophetic works performed in a new way.
The film does get confusing, and the jumps between formats can jar at times. This rapid-fire change may stop the audience from being absorbed in the work; each time the audience is pulled into what they are seeing, the format changes and the story with it. As well as this, there is a scene where Pacino himself takes on the character of Wilde, which could be seen as the ultimate indulgence.
In all, Wilde Salomé is a hot mess; there is a wealth of information on screen – so much that it can feel overwhelming – but this examination of Wilde and Pacino himself, as well as a performance from Jessica Chastain that cements her reputation as an actress to watch, is fascinating in it’s messiness. A messiness and chaos that not only mirrors Pacino’s toils to bring Wilde Salomé to life, but also the chaos of Wilde’s tragic life.