Caesar Must Die is apparently a small, simple film, with one straightforward aim: to remind the viewer that lifers in a maximum security prison in Rome, no matter their crimes, remain emotionally valid and susceptible human beings. Yet to achieve this, the veteran Taviani brothers take on one of the most nebulous issues of them all, the power of art, via that most enduring of artists, in the prison production of Julius Caesar.
The directors’ presence in the film is discreet to a fault, employing a stark black and white palette (digital, and frequently pixelated in the blacks, because it doesn’t matter) and a largely static camera, to focus attention fully on the inmate actors, their words, the words of Shakespeare, and the convergence of the two. Where their hand is wonderfully apparent, however, is in the imperceptible merging of documentary and fiction. The morphing of rehearsal into performance is a technique little used (I can think only of Welles’ “Moby Dick” Rehearsed and, sort of, Miguel Gomes’ “Our Beloved Month Of August”), but it is a powerful way to illustrate the twin phenomena of disbelief’s suspension and the magical way in which an actor comes to inhabit a role.
With the excuse that the stage is being rebuilt, the Tavianis have the play’s (real) director take rehearsals out into various spaces around the prison. The opening of the film is entirely authentic – the final scene of the play on stage (in color), followed by the (amusing) auditions six months earlier. Gradually, however, in bare rooms and the terrifically atmospheric courtyard, the rehearsals move away from the imagined stage for which they are being prepared, and take on the character of filmed drama, with the prisoners no longer recounting someone else’s words from centuries ago, but voicing their own concerns, intrigues, and longing for freedom.
The director Fabio has the prisoners speak in their regional dialects so that these words come naturally and freely. The line between Shakespeare and the prisoners’ own thoughts is breached by personal antagonism, or Brutus struggling to pronounce lines on tyranny that a friend once spoke to him. Caesar’s death takes place in the courtyard beneath watching and commenting guards, and cutaways to “non-acting” in-mates crying “Freedom”; on the eve of the Battle of Philippi Brutus and Cassius, in costume, are dislocated from the prison context in a low shot beneath a white sky, their discussion doubling for anticipation of the opening night, over a soundtrack of the ocean and seabirds. What is “real” is the emotion.
This slippage between reality and fiction – or rather, their merging – is beautifully and quite naturally achieved. Reciting lines about Rome, Cassius pauses to observe that Shakespeare writes about his hometown as though he knew it as it is today. It’s true that these men have little else to occupy them, to take them out of their surroundings, and we can fully empathize with Cassius’ plain assertion that through involvement in the theater programme, art has truly turned his cell into a prison. Ending title cards inform that Brutus (Salvatore Striano) was pardoned and now acts (in Gomorra, amongst others), and that a couple of his companions have written books about their experience with titles like “Free Inside”. The prisoners’ crimes and sentences are clearly presented at the start, but we can easily forget that these are hardened criminals, which is a fairly thorny issue, but quite overcome by the celebration of art’s power to move and redeem; they reflect that their scenes have been played many times before, and will be again, but here it is their truth, and their own connection with the power of Shakespeare’s words, both personal and universal. To observe how this gradually comes about is quietly very exciting.
Film’s Festival Page: Caesar Must Die
World Cinema Section
Directors: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani
Screenwriters: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Fabio Cavalli
Producer: Grazia Volpi
Executive Producer: Donatella Palermo
Cinematographer: Simone Zampagni
Editor: Roberto Perpignani
Production Designers: Claudia Cirasola, Monica Gallo
Music: Giuliano Taviani, Carmelo Travia
Cast: Salvatore Striano, Cosimo Rega, Giovanni Arcuri, Antonio Frasca, Juan Dario Bonetti, Vittorio Parrella, Rosario Majorana, Vincenzo Gallo, Francesco De Masi, Gennaro Solito, Francesco Carusone, Fabio Rizzuto, Maurilio Giaffreda
Running Time (minutes): 76