24 February 2020 07:08 PM



AL Pacino: Shakespeare's Spider Man

Al Pacino, a brilliant performance in The Humbling

TORONTO: The persona of the tortured genius has always been a subject that has fascinated writers and filmmakers. The fallen prodigy is the subject of many films featured in Toronto this year. Robin William’s recent suicide adds a raw edge and poignancy to watching such films.

The film Turner, featuring two greats in cinema, director Michel Leigh and actor Timothy Spall, on Britain’s master of landscape, impressed in Cannes when it premiered there, winning the Palme d’Or for Best Actor. It is in Toronto now creating waves yet again. The visually stunning and classically-styled film deals with the last inglorious 25 years of the painter’s life. Then there is the more modern-day telling of a prodigy who is drummer in Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle. The film provides a frightening examination of artistic drive and the manic ways of driven teachers, which the film indicts and in a way also justifies. The film stars Miles Teller as a young jazz drummer who attends one of the best music schools in the country under the tutelage of the school’s fearsome maestro of jazz.

However, a tour de force on the fallen mighty comes from Al Pacino in the film The Humbling. Based on Philip Roth’s novel, the film opens with a long mesmerizing solo scene in which Al Pacino as the much admired stage actor Simon Axler faces his stage-room mirror and obsessively recites the All the world’s a stage soliloquy from "As You Like It". It is clear that the actor’s mind is in a state of decay – he cannot remember his lines – and that he is now timorously aware of it. He then makes a bizarre entrance on stage and in a flash dives headlong into the orchestra pit, to the amazement and consternation of the audience. He earns notoriety for this crazy act by being nicknamed “Shakespeare’s Spider-man”.

The actor then moves into a mental health facility and when that fails, to his spacious and secluded Connecticut home. Unbalanced and woolly, he is suddenly confronted with the lesbian daughter of an old friend. She had a crush on him when she was eight years old and now wants that puppy love to mature into a full-blooded relationship. She sets about seducing the befuddled and aging man. From here on the film escalates with rising tension as he gets increasingly embroiled in whacky and hilarious incidents involving a neighbour and also his increasing dependence and fondness for the girl. All this chicanery finally leads to the actor ultimately staging his own suicide as he renders one of his finest performances as King Lear.

The film is directed by Barry Levinson who has worked with Pacino before. The 74-year-old star is at his best in this role of an actor caught between reality and fantasy and his own blurring confusion about his sanity and fading abilities. He sees life as an actor – role to role – person to person – as a performance to be evaluated and judged. As a result he has no connection with his own life or reality. He has an inbuilt mordant humour that keeps him afloat and alert. Al Pacino’s intense, watchful eyes and his ability to debunk himself with every scene makes this film both entertaining and incisively telling and relevant.