by Matt Levine
Since its first performance in 1599, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has served as a cornerstone for allegories dealing with political tyranny—think of Orson Welles’ 1937 staging at the Mercury Theatre, which dressed actors in the uniforms so prevalent in Nazi Germany and Italy; or a 1984 staging in New York known only as CAESAR!, which set the action in modern Washington, D.C. The story of a group of Roman conspirators who plot to assassinate the titular monarch in 44 B.C. offers seemingly inexhaustible commentary on the nature of tyranny, patriotism, and revolution. The play’s metaphorical richness apparently was not lost on the Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, who have been standouts on the film-festival circuit at least since 1977’s Padre padrone. Their newest film, Caesar Must Die (which, after winning the Golden Bear at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival, reintroduced the brothers to the festival spotlight), observes a group of prisoners in Rome’s high-security Rebibbia Prison rehearsing a public performance of Julius Caesar—a play whose analysis of freedom and despotism strikes close to home for the imprisoned ensemble onscreen.
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Directors: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani
Producers: Grazia Volpi, Donatella Palermo
Writers: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani, based on the play Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Cinematographer: Simone Zampagni
Editor: Roberto Perpignani
Music: Giuliano Taviani, Carmelo Travia
Cast: Cosimo Rega, Salvatore Striano, Giovanni Arcuri, Antonio Frasca, Juan Dario Bonetti, Vincenzo Gallo, Rosario Majorana, Francesco De Masi, Gennaro Solito, Vittorio Parella
US Home Viewing Release: December 24, 2013
US Distributor: Adopt Films
Caesar Must Die cunningly presents itself as a documentary: the first scene of the film is a real-life staging of Shakespeare’s play at the prison itself, which draws an eruption of celebratory applause from both the audience and the onstage cast. A title reading “Six Months Earlier” and a gorgeous transition to black-and-white rewinds to the beginning of pre-production, when theatre director Fabio Cavalli auditions the prison’s inmates by asking them to divulge their backstories in two disparate emotions: heartache and rage. These brief auditions are performed directly to the camera, doubling as visceral introductions to the real-life convicts featured in the film. The intensity of these monologues stokes our natural human curiosity, our fascination with larger-than-life personalities; we want to know more about the men who, imprisoned for the foreseeable future, look to the creation of art for a cathartic outlet.
For better or worse, Caesar Must Die is only partly interested in supplying such character studies. While the film ostensibly follows the rehearsals and behind-the-scenes dramas leading up to the convicts’ public debut, the Tavianis never attempt to hide the fact that many of these scenes are scripted and staged for the camera. When several actors fervently laud the relevance that Shakespeare’s words have to their own lives, or when a seemingly spontaneous rehearsal leads to an amusingly absurd conversation about Shakespeare’s diversionary plotting, we overtly realize that the writer-directors are providing their own meta-commentary. Later, a trio of guards interrupts another of the actors' rehearsals, theorizing about the characters’ disparate ethics—an example, clearly interjected by the Tavianis themselves, of how art transcends such seemingly paramount boundaries as prisoner and overseer.
The Tavianis’ impulse to provide commentary on the prisoners’ staging of Julius Caesar is moderately interesting, but disconcertingly forced. The old axiom that art can free the soul isn’t terribly fresh, even (or especially) when it’s applied to jailed captors who find solace and escape in the transcendence of creation. Caesar Must Die is most alive when it simply observes its actors achieving such catharsis—as when Vincenzo Gallo’s Lucius suddenly discovers the buffoonish gesture that will define his character, or when Antonio Frasca’s climactic soliloquy as Marc Antony results in a roar of jubilation from the prison inmates. Yet too often, the Tavianis feel the need to contrast Shakespeare’s themes and grand artistic vision with the constricted lives led by these men—there’s even a mawkish line in which one inmate claims he didn’t know how imprisoned he was until art liberated him from his cell. Essentially, Caesar Must Die is a pseudo-documentary that would be significantly more powerful without the "pseudo" aspects.
The film’s adulation of the incarcerated actors as misunderstood artists is also problematic: the Tavianis try to extend Julius Caesar’s condemnation of a tyrannical monarchy’s abuse of power to the imprisonment of these men, but the analogy just isn’t there. With a maudlin scene in which the characters narrate their hopes and dreams on the soundtrack, accompanied by close-ups of each man sleeping, Caesar Must Die seems to convey the prisoners as victims of an unjust judiciary, hardened souls who may still be elated by the majesty of art; they’re like the Romans subjugated by an offscreen Caesar, though their revolution is waged not through assassination, but through art. Without question, it’s admirably humane that the Tavianis relate to the prisoners and their ongoing confinement, but they overemphasize the victimized saintliness of these men (especially with an extended static shot of a prisoner making coffee that begs too overtly for our sympathy). It’s hard to forget the opening titles, which inform us of each inmate’s conviction (“organized crime,” in many cases; “homicide,” in one). Certainly, we can and should sympathize with imprisoned criminals, but we also shouldn't assume they're misunderstood saints simply because the movie tells us so. It seems as though the Tavianis began filming the movie with a pre-patterned idea of how the characters would bolster their anticipated themes, rather than letting the film emerge organically.
The very idea that spawned Caesar Must Die—a humanistic documentary about prison inmates who stage Julius Caesar—is itself a powerful statement on the transcendence of art and the innate fact that every individual is an unfathomable mystery who should not be judged indiscriminately. The movie falters only when it overstates these ideas through awkward scripting and cloying idealism. When the Tavianis have faith in the power of their subject matter—most often when we simply observe the actors rehearsing backstage, their inherent personalities meshing (or clashing) with the new characters they’re evoking--Caesar Must Die is engrossing.
The film's transitions between color cinematography (for the play’s public performance) and black-and-white (for all of the preceding preparations and rehearsals) encapsulate the movie’s schematic themes, but they’re also marvelously achieved: both the eye-popping, vivid colors and silky, austere monochrome are viscerally powerful, accentuating both the men’s restrictive confinement and the theatrical euphoria into which they emerge. Credit Simone Zampagni’s cinematography and the cast of inherently compelling characters for immersing us in the dualistic world of Caesar Must Die: one half drab reality, one half creative transcendence. And, even if they oversell their points, credit Paolo and Vittorio Taviani for recognizing the dramatic potential in the Rebibbia Prison’s artistic program: as men who understand firsthand the violence and thirst for power that defined Caesar’s world, each actor we see in the film is a story unto himself, shaped by an untold past. Caesar Must Die’s most unexpected achievement is to celebrate—whether theatrical or cinematic, documentary or fiction—the complexity of any human character.