Paolo and Vittorio Taviani went to Rebibbia Prison to cry. Years ago, the pair took a trip to an all-inmate performance of selections from Dante’s Inferno that made them weep more than any professional theater. A trip through Hell, after all, is an appropriate choice for a theatrical production conducted in a maximum security prison. One of the inmates read the tale of Paolo and Francesca, perhaps Italian literature’s greatest narrative of doomed romance. Yet in the context of the prison it was even more potent. The man paused to tell the audience his own story, asserting that no one knows the tragedy of impossible love like an inhabitant of Rebibbia, locked away from his beloved for the rest of his life. Between their tears, Paolo and Vittorio decided to shoot their next film behind those walls.
The result is Caesar Must Die, Italy’s official submission this year for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The Tavianis worked with the prison and its arts program on a production of William Shakespeare‘s “Julius Caesar,” filming the rehearsal process and final performance. More than that, however, the brothers scripted around the play itself and created a semi-documentary film that follows the internal life of the prisoners alongside their theatrical performances. The inmates not only perform as Shakespeare’s Romans but also as fictionalized versions of themselves. The result is a 76-minute tour de force that packs more punch than many a three-hour adaptation of “Hamlet” or “Henry V.”
This is not the Bard that you read in high school. Rebibbia is a high security prison, which means it is populated entirely by the most dangerous offenders in the Italian system. These men are killers and gangsters, Mafia and Camorra. When they recite lines about intrigue and violence, you can see on their faces that they know all of this firsthand. The performances may be occasionally unsure, betraying their lack of training, but this insecurity only bolsters their extraordinary moments of clarity. The raw, violent confrontations that drive the drama forward, in particular the assassination of Caesar himself, could not feel more chillingly natural. These men have a style of acting unlike anything we’ve seen in Shakespearean cinema, more reminiscent of the classics of Italian Neorealism than anything from Kenneth Branagh.
Caesar Must Die also forges entirely new territory with its choice of language. Of course, the Bard’s words land strangely on our ears, as they are not spoken in English. Yet, crucially, they aren’t in Italian either. These men, murderers and Mafiosi from Rome and points south, were tasked to translate their lines into the local dialects of their native regions. This might seem difficult for a non-Italian speaker to notice, but it’s actually pretty hard to miss. Think of the rough French and Corsican of the inmates in A Prophet, or the aural violence of Gomorrah. These regional vocabularies, with their dropped vowels and rough consonants, add an urgency to the written dialog that probably hasn’t rung true since the 16th century. “Julius Caesar” is about imperial glory and classical virtues, but it has at its center a dark conspiracy and one of history’s most brutal and infamous murders. It feels almost as Shakespeare had all along intended his work to be performed by Roman prisoners.
Paolo and Vittorio Taviani almost fade into the background at times, as if their plan was to let Shakespeare do most of the heavy lifting. Their additions to the script are mostly introspective moments on the part of the inmates, struggling with the contradiction between the freedom of acting and the claustrophobia of prison. Yet these often distract and never quite match the intense drama of the play itself. The prisoners seem much more confident playing characters long lost to history than they do reflectively representing themselves, and these diversions undercut some of the film’s dramatic potency.
When the brothers are focused on the drama of Shakespeare’s timeless scenes, rather than their own invention, Caesar Must Die is unparalleled. The constricting cells and recreation areas of Rebibbia are re-purposed as the Senate and Forum of Rome, and these ancient buildings come to life. To so effectively transform such a closed space is no small feat. Moreover, there is also a fascinating tension beneath the surface of this film, somewhere between the black and white evocation of Neorealism and the vivid final theatrical performance. Is this a film about prisoners, a film about Shakespeare, or a film about Ancient Rome? Are these men primarily criminals, or have they become actors? In the end, all of these men must return to their cells and resume a life without independence. But once you have killed Caesar, can you really go back to being just an inmate?
The Upside: Shakespeare has never been quite so terrifying.
The Downside: The composer, Vittorio’s son Giuliano, insists on overusing a schlocky soprano saxophone line throughout the score.
On the Side: Salvatore Striano, who plays Brutus, has since been released from Rebibbia and has appeared in a number of Italian films, including Gomorrah.