Caesar Must Die: Berlin Film Review

Umberto Montiroli
Moving away from the literary costume dramas that have been their principal terrain for many years, the Taviani Brothers explore a fascinating encounter between theater and reality.

A production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in Rome's maximum-security Rebibbia Prison provides meaty fodder for Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's docudrama riff on the art-and-life intersection.

BERLIN – It seems doubtful that the eternally genteel veteran Italian filmmaking team Paolo and Vittorio Taviani were ever fans of HBO’s Oz.  But in that cable drama’s final-season climax, a prison production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth rippled with echoes of the power plays within the maximum-security facility’s walls. In Caesar Must Die (Cesare Deve Morire), the chosen text is Julius Caesar, and the theatrical experiment in Rome’s Rebibbia Prison, unlike in Oz, yields catharsis for the inmates, not chaos.

Leaving aside the constipated costume dramas and literary adaptations that have long been their fusty domain, the Taviani Brothers return closer here to the docudrama hybrid territory of their 1977 international breakthrough, Padre Padrone. This is a looser, grittier film than their work of late, and while it’s more successful in the sequences of bold theatricality than in the faux-cinéma vérité of the surrounding scenes, the mix is nonetheless an interesting one.

By far the best part of the film is the audition process, during which inmates are asked to supply personal data – name, date and place of birth, pre-incarceration residence – the first time in an emotionally distraught state and then again in defiant anger. Subtitles reveal their convictions (ranging from drug trafficking to Mafia affiliations) and the length of their sentences while they fire up, seemingly at the flick of a switch, into fiercely committed histrionics.

I’m by no means the first to observe that there’s a born performer in most Italians, whose florid language and fondness for gesticulation are rich in inherent theatricality. That’s especially true of these hard-nut cases, whose flair for the dramatic means they have no trouble getting in touch with their inner Anna Magnani. That generates compelling fireworks when they are grappling with Shakespeare’s words – in a simplified contemporary adaptation – but it’s a limitation in the staged fly-on-the-wall moments of solitude or intimate conversation. These guys can’t turn it off, and their patent awareness of the camera means the film doesn’t quite convey the layers of troubled humanity that it perhaps could.

But to be fair, the Tavianis don’t try to pass off that aspect of the experiment as absolute verisimilitude. If anything, they heighten the artificiality by shooting the six-month preparation period for the production in brooding black and white and employing Giuliano Taviani and Carmelo Travia’s score to high-drama effect.

Theater director Fabio Cavalli, encourages the men to perform in their native dialects – Roman, Neapolitan, Calabrian, Apulian, etc. – and with minimal coaxing, he pushes them to seek out common ground between the drama and their own experiences.

Given that the play deals with the corrupting influence of power and ambition, those parallels are not hard to come by. All the cast seem to respond to its themes – life and death, rivalry and hate, collusion and treachery, loyalty and betrayal, the nature of crime and the codes of honor that shape the world of men. Occasionally, those connections feel forced in the Tavianis’ scripted elaboration, but there are enough powerfully raw moments to keep it gripping.

The title character is played with amusing swagger and a roughneck Roman accent by burly Giovanni Arcuri, who is quite persuasive as a Caesar with delusions of immortality, heedless to the encroaching threat. The real heavy lifting, however, is done by Salvatore Striano as an impassioned Brutus. Striano was pardoned in 2006 and has been working as an actor since his release, returning to Rebibbia to participate in this production. But even if his casting is something of a cheat, his history with the facility makes it legitimate.

Being an all-male cast, and not in the traditional Shakespearian mode, the roles of Calpurnia and Portia have been nixed. But Cosimo Rega is commanding as Cassius, and Antonio Frasca as Mark Antony gets to deliver a striking version of the famed “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” funeral oration, rehearsed in an austere courtyard. Frasca stands alone in front of Caesar’s corpse, with the assembled mob hidden behind the surrounding walls and glimpsed only through covered windows, yet no less inflamed in their rebellion against the conspirators.

While the excerpts from the much-applauded public performance in a traditional auditorium are dynamic (switching back to color), it’s in rehearsals in such incongruous spaces as prison cells and corridors that the scenes from Shakespeare acquire new resonance.

A tendency toward overwritten dialogue outside the context of the play detracts mildly from the overall effectiveness. For example, returning to confinement after the performance, 20-year inmate Rega grandly declaims, “Since I have known art, this cell has become a prison.” Footage of the principal cast being silently shut back into their cells expresses the same idea more eloquently. And the repetition of Brutus’ suicide scene at the beginning and end of the film contributes to it feeling a little stretched, even at a brief 76 minutes. But flaws notwithstanding, this is a stimulating marriage between theater and harsh reality.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)

Cast: Salvatore Striano, Cosimo Rega, Giovanni Arcuri, Antonio Frasca, Juan Dario Bonetti, Vittorio Parrella, Rosario Majorana, Vincenzo Gallo, Francesco De Masi, Gennaro Solito, Francesco Carusone, Fabio Rizzuto, Maurilio Giaffreda

Production companies: Kaos Cinematografica, Stemal Entertainment, Le Talee, La Ribalta, Centro Studi Enrico Maria Salerno

Directors: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani

Screenwriters: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, with Fabio Cavalli, freely adapted from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”

Theater director: Fabio Cavalli

Producer: Grazia Volpi

Executive producer: Donatella Palermo

Theater director: Fabio Cavalli

Director of photography: Simone Zampagni

Music: Giuliano Taviani, Carmelo Travia

Costume designer: Laura Andreini Salerno

Editor: Roberto Perpignani

Sales: Rai Trade

No rating, 76 minutes