If you want to see how life informs acting, you have to see Caesar Must Die. Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviani have been making movies together since 1962. Influenced by one of the pioneers of Italian new-realism, Roberto Rossellini, the brothers come from a place where they understand that an actor’s experiences play a more important part in their performance than formal training. It should come as no surprise when the actors of the Tavianis’ latest work, a troupe gathered from inmates in the high-security Rebibbia Prison, channel Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with a potent verve that no posh, sincere actor could have achieved.
Caesar Must Die, only serves to highlight the artifice of acting through these potent performances that the filmmakers subvert in various ways throughout the movie. The film opens with the last scene of the play. The actors quiver with wide-eyed sincerity, delivering the lines of Shakespeare in Italian, using the accents from the various regions of Italy from whence they came. “This is a man,” seems to be the final line of this version of the play, according to the subtitles (as opposed to Shakespeare’s “This was a man”). It’s an appropriate finale, as the scene only marks the start of the film, which moves briskly along, in a little over an hour’s time. After the standing ovation by the civilian audience and the roar of cheers from the actors in response, it seems apparent these actors went through much more than a play, and the directors know the true drama lays in the making of this production.
The film next fades to a silent, empty theater and then interior of Rebibbia Prison, as the actors, in plain clothes walk with their heads bowed down in silence as jailers work to open their solitary cell doors before the convicts step inside. The film next fades to a tight exterior shot of the windows of the prison in black and white footage, an intertitle announces “Six months earlier…” So begins the casting of the actors, where the theater director Fabio Cavalli will walk the actors through their roles. From learning their lines and feeling out their characters, the actors often break their readings with comments and questions that illuminate their parts with a depth beyond the meaning of the dialogue.
This is not a documentary, though these actors are real prisoners for crimes like murder, drug dealing and mafia activities. This is a meta-narrative about the relevance of art as communication. There are times when it feels a bit heavy-handed, such as a drama between actors when one accuses the other of speaking behind his back, while they rehearse. It slips out creatively, however, during a rehearsal of lines that seems to become improvisation before turning into a real no-holds-barred argument, but by then the film has made its point, and the great moments are the extended scenes within the confines of the prison walls as the actors inhabit their roles for some key sequences of the play. Their confinement looms hard and heavy over the big, resonant words of Shakespeare. After a return to the final scene in color and on stage, which becomes even more powerful on a second viewing, the film ends with Cosimo Rega, who plays the scheming Cassius, alone in his cell, uttering the line, “Since I got to know art this cell is a prison.”
The Tavianis’ film went on to win the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival. It’s a major achievement for such a small film, but it does offer a statement that reaches beyond film. The recognition arrives well-deserved in acknowledging a pair of strong directors whose visionary work offers not only a statement about art, but its saving grace, even if it does arrive a little late for those doomed to live out their last days in prison.
Caesar Must Die is in Italian with English subtitles, runs 76 minutes and is not rated (expect a scene with harsh language, however). It opened at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this past Friday, March 29, and plays there from Tuesday, April 2, through Thursday, April 4. The theater loaned me a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. The film may also be playing elsewhere nationwide, as dates are scheduled through the end of April. Visit the movie’s homepage via Adopt Films for all U.S. screening dates: here.