Caught in the Act
By Damon Smith

Caesar Must Die
Dir. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy, Adopt Films

Mainstays of the Italian cinema scene since their high-school-age encounter with Rossellini’s Paisan inspired their first creative twitchings, sibling filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, now in their eighties, are still plying their trade with admirable tenacity. Although mid-career gems like Padre Padrone, Kaos, and The Night of the Shooting Stars made the Tavianis dear to connoisseurs of the foreign-language-film sections of Blockbuster Video in the eighties and nineties, the Tuscan-raised brothers have had a quieter presence on the international festival circuit in the past decade, with only a single feature (The Lark Farm, a drama about the Armenian genocide starring Sex and Lucía’s Paz Vega), along with a couple of low-profile TV movies adapted from novels by Dumas and Tolstoy. Given that history, many critics rejoiced when the Tavianis won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale for Caesar Must Die, a spry 76-minute docu-whatsit about inmates at Rome’s high-security Rebibbia penitentiary rehearsing for a jailhouse-theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. While not quite the “late-career triumph” the New York Film Festival is advertising it to be, it’s a lean, intelligent film about art’s spiritually regenerative properties, boldly realized and enacted in its best moments, and exquisitely photographed on the grounds of the prison in stylized, (mostly) black-and-white compositions that evoke early Pasolini.

The Tavianis open the film on the play’s death-of-Brutus scene during a live performance at Rebibbia’s theater, photographing the costumed actors in tight close-ups and at various angles, and capturing the milieu in bold color framings that emphasize the actors’ visages and corporeal presence; there’s a kind of Wellesian grandeur conferred to their stage efforts. The play ends with a jubilant cheer, the audience applauds, and then exits the auditorium, and the prisoners, accompanied by guards, return to their drab cells. “Six months earlier,” a title card reads over a low-angle shot of the brutalist facility’s brick-and-window security-gate exterior, and the film shifts to monochrome. Fabio Cavalli, a stage director and ten-year veteran of rehabilitation- through-art theater labs, announces to a roomful of convict hopefuls that Julius Caesar has been selected for the program’s next season. “It’s about a great Roman general,” he tells them, “who gives in to the temptation of tyranny and for that reason will be assassinated by his fellow politicians.”

The thesps themselves are introduced in an amusing sequence of quasi-Warholian screen tests. Asked simply to give their name and place of birth, each is instructed to deliver a few lines—first in anguish, then in rage—in the character of a man separated from his family at a border crossing. The Tavianis find a wealth of wannabe conspirators in the rogue’s gallery of convicted mafiosi, drug traffickers, and stone-cold murderers who line up to audition. They weep, bellow, and moan improvised dialogue, unleashing their inner Jake LaMottas with all the physicality and street-savvy gesticulation they can muster while the auditors take note of their impromptu performances. Casting decisions are made—the principals are quickly identified mug-shot style, along with their crimes and length of sentence—and rehearsals begin. Cavalli encourages them to speak in their hometown dialects and make Shakespeare’s words their own, a simple instruction that seems to yield cathartic results as they begin to discover connections between the play’s themes of power, ambition, and betrayal and their own checkered personal histories.

Conceptually, Caesar Must Die is deceptively straightforward as it purports to track the Rebibbia theater company’s efforts to mount the production. But the film remains subtly perplexing in its execution: at every turn, it raises the question of genre— are we watching a documentary about art transforming life under lock and key, or a loosely scripted prison drama based on Julius Caesar acted by nonprofessionals who happen to be real-life criminals? Is it a self-starring reenactment or a bona fide observational composite of actual events? Emphasizing the tensions between fact and fable, authenticity and artifice, Caesar Must Die is creative in its deliberately lackadaisical attitude toward verisimilitude (the actor who plays Brutus, Salvatore Striano, was pardoned two years before shooting commenced and returned to Rebibbia to impersonate himself as an inmate in the “present,” a detail we learn—sort of—in the end credits) and in its formal disguise as a fly-on-the-wall documentary, a conceit demolished early on as we realize that much of the self-reflective dialogue is staged (“Have we never known bullying Caesars in our own homes?,” intones Cosimo Rega, the lifer who plays Cassius) and the set-ups carefully choreographed for cinematic purposes. The inmates seem altogether more comfortable, and more credible, reciting Shakespeare’s dialogue than they do the self-conscious cell chatter and little epiphanies the Tavianis have written for them to read as themselves.

One of the most powerful sequences in the film is also one of the longest and most complicated “rehearsal” scenes, the death of Caesar (Giovanni Arcuri), shot entirely in the prison’s architecturally jagged courtyard and taking up nearly fifteen minutes of screen time. Using tracking shots and multiple vantage points to capture the mobility of the actors within the vertiginous outdoor corridors and to heighten the dramatic arc of the conspiracy, murder, and subsequent funeral orations of Brutus and Antony, the Tavianis here abandon all pretense to de rigueur documentary “truth,” visually and otherwise, and find their subjects willing and energetic collaborators in creating this film within a film. The entire prison population appears to have taken on the role of the Roman mob, shaking the iron grates of their cells and crying out the appropriate lines (“No, live, Brutus!”) with actorly vigor. Even a trio of guards, whose humorous asides we cut away to in the manner of Tom Stoppard’s meta-Shakespeare play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, are enlisted. We hear them squabbling over Antony’s moral character as they watch the scene and pretend to be too enthralled to bring the inmates’ “recreation time” to an end.

Adding to the effect, Giuliano and Carmelo Taviani’s score deploys two leitmotifs, one a melancholy woodwind doodle suggesting heartache and perhaps a nostalgia for freedom (“Observers of the ceiling, they could call us,” says one convict in voiceover over a montage of the men’s faces as they lie in bed at night or, in one case, pivot abruptly into a pillow), the other a tense Howard Shore–grade symphonic squall that belongs to the tonal language of suspense cinema and arises during the lengthier stretches of uninterrupted Shakespearean acting. Such bleeds between fiction and reality continue apace, and are sometimes registered by the camera itself, as when Salvatore/Brutus, on the eve of the climactic battle on the Plain of Philippi, is spooked by the appearance of Caesar’s ghost, rendered only by a shaky, disembodied POV shot and Arcuri’s studio-modulated off-screen voice.

Three decades ago, the Italian film scholar Millicent Marcus wrote insightfully about the Tavianis’ complicated relationship to neorealism, whose birth moments they had witnessed on-screen, and the “aesthetic distance” they’d traveled on their path to maturity as filmmakers. Night of the Shooting Stars, she wrote, was “replete with stylistic ‘pointers’ which disrupt our suspension of disbelief and insist that we acknowledge the basis of our film-viewing experience in artifice and illusion.” The same could be said of Caesar Must Die, which allows poetic feeling and fictive strategies to fuse with factual observation. There are hazards and unexpected delights to such a method, but the Tavianis, at least, have not ceased to explore that push-pull dynamic, and here show a commitment to their cloak-and-dagger prisoner players—a belief in their talent and honesty, really—that is amply rewarded.