Shakespeare Unchained: Taviani Brothers' 'Caesar Must Die' applauds a prison theatre company


In their six decades of collaboration, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have written and directed 19 narrative and documentary features. “We make movies only when we have a very strong emotional connection,” Vittorio explained in an interview last fall. The Italian brothers, now in their 80s, were in Manhattan for the American premiere of Caesar Must Die at the New York Film Festival. About a prison theatre company production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the film is strikingly original and, like much of their work, distinguished by its humanist sensibilities.

Whether the filmmakers are adapting a Sardinian linguist’s memoir as they did for Padre Padrone (1977), the only movie ever to have won both the critics award and the Palme d’Or at Cannes, or Luigi Pirandello’s short stories for Kaos (1984), their work is sometimes difficult to classify. At first glance, Caesar Must Die, slated for a February release (through Adopt Films), is a documentary about the prisoner-actors, all men, incarcerated at Rome’s Rebbibia prison, yet it is also a performance film, a rather unique interpretation of Julius Caesar. Paolo and Vittorio, and Fabio Cavalli, the prison’s theatre director, revised the tragedy to eliminate scenes with the female characters Calpurnia and Portia. More rewriting was necessary to translate the play into the different Southern Italian dialects spoken by the actors.

The Tavianis discovered their subjects, who are serving long prison terms or life sentences, when they were invited to several performances at Rebbibia, one an adaptation of Dante’s tale of star-crossed lovers Paolo and Francesca. “These were well-directed productions,” Vittorio recalls, “and we wondered: What does working in the theatre mean to these delinquents? Excuse my use of this term, but after watching them, we thought: What is the true meaning of art in this circumstance?” The Taviani brothers, erudite and charming, have a peculiar talent for exploring such philosophical questions through a careful choice of material, and direction that is driven by their fascination with the human condition. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, with its consideration of paternalism and political rivalry, proves the perfect vehicle.

After the performance of Paolo and Francesca, the filmmakers spoke to the prisoners, who compared themselves to the couple, friends of Dante in real life. They are separated for eternity by “conflicting winds” in the Second Circle of the Inferno. “The men felt the impossibility of their characters’ love,” Paolo says, “and said it represented their own situation.” Vittorio explains that these conversations led to the brothers’ decision to make Caesar Must Die. “All of the prisoners moved us very much because we felt that these theatre pieces were not born of joy, but of pain,” he observes. “When we left the prison that day, Paolo and I said: Away with all of our other projects.” The writer-directors then suggested to Cavalli that the prisoners perform Julius Caesar. “It meant choosing a story that was Italian and Roman,” Vittorio says of the tragedy, which is set in imperial Rome. “It is part of the collective Italian imagination and history.”

The Taviani brothers’ obvious sense of wonder at unraveling the complex emotions of their subjects in Caesar Must Die makes for a riveting film, and raises the question of whether they were able to forget, as we do watching it, that these men are hardened criminals, murderers, drug dealers and members of the Camorra. “Sometimes we felt very close to them, but we made this film without meaning to prove anything,” Paolo remarks. “We only wanted to recount the emotion of these human beings who made mistakes, who killed but who are seeking through the theatre to bring out their pain and suffering and for a few hours to feel and be normal.”

The filmmakers, who always share writing and directing tasks, recall some difficult moments on location at the prison. During the assassination scene, they provided encouragement to their actors that, in retrospect, appeared wrongheaded. “We said: ‘Now you have to find within yourself the instinct to kill,” Vittorio recalls. “As soon as the words left our lips, well—then the actors said to us: ‘It’s okay. We are here to express what is inside ourselves and to purge ourselves.’” Vittorio, who says his professional relationship to Paolo is a “mystery,” looks at his more effusive partner. They never interrupt each other. “These prisoners collaborated with such great passion that when we shot that sequence, the murder of Julius Caesar, the whole jail knew, and in the other sections a silence fell over everyone.” Vittorio also remembers the scene in which Brutus and Mark Antony deliver their soliloquies, recited over the dead body of Caesar. “Mark Antony says that Brutus is a ‘man of honor,’” he explains, “which has many insinuations in the play. In the Camorra, they call themselves ‘men of honor’ as well, so it has a double meaning.”

Much of Caesar Must Die, the auditions, rehearsals and conversations among prisoners, is filmed in black-and-white, while the performance before an audience is in color. “We wanted the public to understand through this cinematic device that what is happening in black-and-white occurred six months prior, but this is a tactical reason,” Vittorio explains. “The real reason is that we think black-and-white today is an expressive force, one that is not realistic, while color is naturalistic.” Asked about the way in which the black-and-white images emphasize the sharply angled interiors of the prison, Vittorio replies: “A world of tragedy in black-and-white inside those terrible spaces that are within the prison itself, and the tragic figures who are the prisoners, evoking the ghosts of other fated figures who lived 2,000 years ago—this marries the tragedy of then with the tragedy of today.”

Like Caesar Must Die, many of the Taviani brothers’ films are a melding of documentary and fiction, or are narrative films drawn from real life, or adapted from sources that chronicle historical events. For example, the Pirandello stories in Kaos are named for a forest near the Nobel Prize-winning author’s childhood home in Sicily, the island which is the setting for the movie. The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) takes place in the Tavianis’ native Tuscany at the end of World War II; it follows a group of villagers who hope the American army will reach them before their town is overrun by the Nazis. Good Morning, Babylon (1987) chronicles the adventures of two Italian brothers who find work in the United States on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.

Asked to speculate about whether this mix of fiction and nonfiction results in the best movies, Paolo smiles. “There are as many ways to make movies as there are to die,” he says. “Because humanity takes many forms, there are many personalities in the world, and many realities. All of the best directors in the history of cinema have tried to speak about their reality, realizing at the same time that their own personalities existed in a society which in some cases conditioned and oppressed them, and in other cases, as with Eisenstein, for instance, exalted them and determined their style.” The latter may be said about Paolo and Vittorio, whose cultural heritage has had a profound effect on their work.

They are often attracted to stories which depict a protagonist’s encounter with a significant historical event, or with great art, forces that have long shaped the Italian character. Near the end of Caesar Must Die, a prisoner reflects that his exposure to Shakespeare has, ironically, intensified his experience of incarceration. “It was not in the script,” Paolo reveals. “He discovers art, but at the same time it is fleeting.” Such bittersweet and evanescent moments are what the Tavianis strive to capture in their work—and what they experienced one night in a prison theatre. “When we heard Dante in Neapolitan,” Paolo recalls of the Paolo and Francesca play, “we heard sounds that were new even in this material that we knew so well.”

There are political overtones in Caesar Must Die, although the filmmakers demur when asked about them. To Northern Italian ears, the Southern dialects of the prisoner-actors are those of the disenfranchised or, to be less politically correct, what some Italians think of as the languages of the criminal class. The Tavianis once called the Italian South, the setting for so many of their movies, “an unresolved national problem, an epic, if not a mythical estate…” They are Northerners, born in Pisa, and would not have missed the significance of a disproportionate number of Neapolitans, Sicilians and Calabrians among the incarcerated. “The prisoners revived Shakespeare for us,” Paolo says when asked about this circumstance. “Hearing the playwright’s words recited in these different languages made us rediscover it.”