Feature Film: Wilde Salomé

Feature Film: <em>Wilde Salomé</em>
Al Pacino’s documentary is a funny but flawed product of passion.
Yes, this really is a still from Wilde Salomé. [Source: Creative Commons]

Yes, this really is a still from Wilde Salomé. [Source: Creative Commons]

Al Pacino has forayed into documentary territory before, with 1996’s excellent Looking For Richard. This latest offering – only Pacino’s fourth film as a director – borrows the structure and passion of his Shakespearian study, but lacks its cogency.

Wilde Salomé takes the titular play and writer as its subjects – however, Pacino doesn’t make things so simple for either himself or the audience. Filmed concurrently with Pacino’s movie adaptation of the 2011 staged reading of Oscar Wilde’s powerful play, Wilde Salomé takes in behind-the-scenes snippets of both the play and film versions, in between globe-trotting exploits to tell the story of Wilde’s life and the creation of Salomé. Along the way, Pacino indulges in some fourth-wall mockery of how the documentary came together: therefore at times, Wilde Salomé is a documentary about the filming of a documentary about a film version of a staged reading of a play.

This all results in a very funny and bizarre experience that never quite hits the mark. The best moments are the surprisingly honest ones: whether its Pacino pulling his hair out as the pressures of multi-tasking on a budget take hold; or the quiet clash between stage and film producers when they realise their star has lied to them both; or Pacino’s seemingly naïve rant against the ticket prices of the theatre production that claims him as its star. Thought of taking a pay cut, Mr Pacino? Yet for every moment that threatens to portray the actor in a bad light, ole Al charms his way to our hearts through sheer showmanship – there’s no resisting the pleasure he shows when greeting his fans in the street, or each self-aware moment that deliberately bursts the bubble of glamour that surrounds the creative process.

Meanwhile, Oscar Wilde proves far too fascinating a person to ever be boring. Pacino clearly adores the great Irish wit and relishes the process of discovering his experiences before, during and after the publication of Salomé. His journey provides us rare glimpses of key locations in Wilde’s life, from the streets of Dublin to the Parisian apartment in which he died. Pacino’s affinity with Wilde extends to putting himself in a bad wig to play the writer in a strange reconstruction of Wilde’s arrest. It is strange because Pacino looks three decades too old for the part (hint: he really is) and because there are no other reconstructions of any part of Wilde’s life throughout the film, apart from brief excerpts from Brian Gilbert’s 1997 film starring Stephen Fry. The whole scene feels out of place and pointless, its inclusion merited only by fulfilling Pacino’s desperate need to put himself in his hero’s shoes: the most forced side of Wilde Salomé’s journey is its unsubtle depiction of parallels between Pacino and Wilde – an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to make art imitate life.

Unfortunately, the fascinating tidbits about Oscar Wilde aren’t enough to satisfy us – by the end of the film, you’ll learn no more about Wilde than you would from reading his Wikipedia entry. There’s an amazing array of famous faces who expound upon Wilde’s brilliance, but they tell us nothing we didn’t already know, and every meaningful comment is undone by the inane summations of Bono, who makes an unwelcome appearance presumably because he’s Irish and famous, and not for his contribution to Wilde scholarship.

The root problem of Wilde Salomé is time management. Pacino simply spends too long entertaining us and not enough time informing us, which is a crippling failure for most documentaries. The worst offence is Pacino’s insistence on including prolongued clips from his film Salomé, which take up a third of the lean 90-minute runtime, and serve little purpose since the play’s entire plot is recounted by various interviewees in the first half of the film. On the other hand, you do get to see Jessica Chastain’s breasts without sitting through the intense darkness of Wilde’s entire play – that justifies every clip, right?

Ultimately Wilde Salomé is good enough to make the idea of Pacino the documentarian a welcome prospect. It is a very entertaining and surprisingly frank look behind the scenes of Salomé. Fascinating and frequently hilarious, Pacino’s passion for Oscar Wilde’s play shines through as clearly as his showmanship irritates his producers. Only next time, I hope he will use the precious screentime available to justify and explain his sweeping statements about his subject, instead of playing overlong clips from his most recent film.


A double bill of Salomé and Wilde Salomé will be presented at the BFI Southbank on Sunday 21st September and followed by a Q&A with Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain that will be broadcast live via satellite to cinemas across the UK and Ireland.  The unique event will be hosted by Stephen Fry.

Robin is an obsessive film fanatic and occasional person. When he is not watching films or editing Litro Film & Media he can be found writing and producing the Alltime channels on Youtube. He is often distracted by the need to write scripts and short stories.

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