Prison theatricals are nothing new in the movies – even Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” has one – but “Caesar Must Die,” a quasi-documentary featuring hardened convicts acting out Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” is in a class by itself.
Vittorio and Paolo Taviani, the fraternal directing team responsible for more than 60 years for such masterpieces as “Padre Padrone” and “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” filmed inside the maximum-security prison in Rebbibia, Italy, a few miles northeast of where the actual Julius Caesar was murdered. The convicts that we see in rehearsal, or in snippets from the final production, are performing a paraphrased, slimmed-down version of Shakespeare, and yet the lethal passion of the play comes through as surely as if we were watching a production at the Old Vic.
“Caesar Must Die” is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. We watch the actors rehearse under the direction of non-inmate Fabio Cavalli, who has been staging theatricals for years with the prisoners; but we are also privy to the actors’ lives offstage, or between recitations, and these scenes, too, are staged. And yet the scenes are presumably drawn from real-life confrontations, such as the moment when two prisoners break character and a private spat suddenly becomes a public rumble.
What makes these sequences – indeed, the film’s entire conception – so powerful is that these men are the real deal. The Tavianis (both are in their 80s) do not attempt to sugarcoat the convicts or their incarcerations.
Early on we are shown the actors’ auditions, and, as if to arrest our sympathies, the filmmakers slap onto the screen the prisoners’ rap sheets: drug trafficking, mayhem, and, in some cases, murder. Many of the men are mafiosi. Such are the redemptive powers of art that, even knowing all this, we can’t help but be moved by the intensity of some of the performances.
Giovanni Arcuri, for example, as Caesar, has the formidable bearing of an emperor. (Perhaps he was a capo in his civilian existence.) Salvatore Striano gives Brutus a tragic fatalism. His big death scene, when he runs into his own sword, is his apotheosis.
Does it matter if we know that Striano returned to Rebbibia for this production after being released from prison in 2006? (He has since become a movie actor who made his debut in the 2008 crime drama “Gomorrah.”) I think not, if only because the Tavianis are upfront about their artifice. They are not playing simplistic fiction versus reality games here. Their attempt is closer to Pirandellian: a demonstration of the ways in which artifice and the actual can inhabit the same shape-shifty universe. (One of the greatest of Taviani movies, “Kaos,” is, in fact, derived from stories by Luigi Pirandello.)
The pent-up isolation of prison life explodes in this movie into a controlled frenzy. These men clearly register the parallels between Shakespeare’s drama of revenge and betrayal and their own lives. This is Method acting of the strangest kind.
But what must they think when they are also called upon to act out a scripted version of their “real” lives? For some of these convicts, especially, one assumes, the con artists and grifters, playacting is integral to their essence. In lockup or out, it’s how they survive.
Except for the color sequences showing snatches from the finished production before a live audience, everything in “Caesar Must Die” is shot in stark black and white. The faces of the men are offered up to us in jagged, sculptural relief – icons of Roman might.
Cavalli has said of Shakespeare’s play that it is “an Italian story, a Roman story that’s part of the collective imagination of the Italian people.” This must certainly explain why these convicts give so much of themselves to the production, and the production within the production, too.
The Tavianis do not leave us with the comforting notion that, if not for better circumstance, these men would be saints. The ferocity of the performances is inextricable from the men’s real-life criminality. We are baffled, moved, and repulsed – often at the same time – by the elemental spectacle before us. In this metaprison drama, the prison bars are both illusory and unbreakable. “Caesar Must Die” chronicles an exalted entrapment. Grade: A- (Unrated.)