Film Review: Caesar Must Die

Paolo and Vittorio Taviani brilliantly merge documentary and fiction in this film about a prison production of Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar'

Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in Caesar Must Die, may upset purists, yet it is arguably a definitive interpretation of the play. Staged in Rome’s Rebibbia prison with amateur actors, prisoners who are former drug peddlers, murderers and members of the Camorra, the production explores Shakespeare’s major themes in unusual ways.

The play is set in imperial Rome, and is mainly about the conspirators, especially Brutus, whose relationship to Caesar lies at the core of the tragedy. While the great general appears only briefly, his contentious dealings with Cassius, and his stance as a paternal figure to Mark Antony and Brutus, expose Shakespeare’s thoughtful consideration of the nature of friendship and rivalry, as well as the potential for filial treachery. In fact, some scholars consider Julius Caesar to be Shakespeare’s Oedipal play. In Caesar Must Die, the prisoner-actors’ lives, and their wrongdoing, may be seen as contemporary examples of the conflicts Shakespeare examines in Julius Caesar.

Before embarking on this project, the veteran Italian filmmakers (Padre Padrone, The Night of the Shooting Stars) attended several of the prisoners’ productions at Rebibbia, and observed the cathartic experience it represented for many of them. The writer-directors’ perceptions are reflected in the movie’s melding of documentary and fiction, and its mix of color and black-and-white film, which signal a contrast of the harsh reality of prison life and the redemptive quality of drama. There is violence in the shadows, and a semblance of calm, even of triumph in the color, as it is reserved mostly for brief scenes of the final production.

Most of the movie is in black-and-white, and devoted to the prisoners’ rehearsals. It opens with their casting, in which they are told to act sad and then angry over an imagined departure from their families. Their ability to so accurately represent these extreme emotions at first suggests that they are not acting at all. In fact, in a few instances, this is the case, but the movie is so intricate and absorbing that even when the acting leaves something to be desired, emotion is felt and humanity is explored.

In fact, Caesar Must Die is an investigation into character, into the complex attributes of personality that lead some to misjudge, and to act on impulses that others would deny. It is also an examination of Shakespeare’s sublime characters who have weathered the test of time and relevancy. Prisoners were permitted to recite in their native dialects, for many of them their first or only language. Their lines were translated from the Italian, not Shakespeare’s English, and in the melodious patois of Neapolitan and Sicilian, for instance, the characters and their motives assume other levels of meaning. Aided by their perception of the play as Italian in nature and subject matter, the prisoners lay claim to their characters in a way that adds an undeniable element of veracity.

The Taviani brothers’ showcasing of these Southern Italian dialects serves as a political statement, albeit an adventitious one. Most Italians view them as languages of the underclass, and it is impossible to ignore their predominance in the prison. The entire film may be seen as a process in which the prisoners’ transcendence of their circumstances makes them sympathetic, in the same way that through Shakespeare’s tragedy, Brutus’ suffering erases his criminality and renders him human. At an early rehearsal of the play, theatre director Fabio Cavalli allows the soothsayer (Francesco Carusone) to fashion his character after his own village’s fortune-tellers. The other prisoners smile at the soothsayer’s gesticulations, mirroring our own enjoyment and intensifying our connection to them. It is obvious the filmmakers felt similar emotions.

In the Taviani brothers’ meticulously mixed soundtrack, the music and the sounds of the prison reflect the pathos of the narrative. Fate finds expression in the extended whole notes played on strings or synthesized instruments, giving way to the brief warning of a horn. In the closing scenes of the film, the exultation of the audience’s applause after the performance is in stark contrast to the fateful clanging of the metal doors when the prisoners return to their cells. The strangest sound in the movie may have been serendipitous, yet it marks a sublime disparity of sound and image. In the third act of Julius Caesar, set in the caged exterior of the prison, we hear chirping birds, mixed as loudly as possible under the dialogue. In the incompatibility of that image of confinement to the sound of transcendence, the Taviani brothers find the finest metaphor for their subjects’ experiences—and for the power of art.