Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Movie Review: Caesar Must Die

Caesar Must Die
Directed by:  Paolo Taviani & Vittorio Taviani.
Written by: Paolo Taviani & Vittorio Taviani based on the play by William Shakespeare.
Starring: Cosimo Rega (Cassio), Salvatore Striano (Bruto), Giovanni Arcuri (Cesare), Antonio Frasca (Marcantonio), Juan Dario Bonetti (Decio), Vincenzo Gallo (Lucio), Rosario Majorana (Metello), Francesco De Masi (Trebonio), Gennaro Solito (Cinna), Vittorio Parrella (Casca), Pasquale Crapetti (Legionary), Francesco Carusone (Fortune Teller), Fabio Rizzuto (Stratone), Fabio Cavalli (Theatre Director), Maurilio Giaffreda (Ottavio).

Caesar Must Die uses real inmates from Rebibbia prison, just outside of Rome, playing themselves, and also playing characters from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The film opens and closes with scenes in color of the inmates performance, in front of an apparently enthusiastic crowd, of Shakespeare’s play. In the middle, which is shot in stark black and white, we see the six months of rehearsals that went into mounting this production. But Caesar Must Die is not a documentary about prisoners performing Shakespeare. Even the rehearsal scenes are scripted by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. They do this to draw parallels between the prisoners and the characters they play, and by having men who are in prison for years if not for the rest of their lives, it gives some of Shakespeare’s words new meanings.

As a film, Caesar Must Die is a fascinating experiment – but not an altogether successful one. If you don’t at least have a working knowledge of Shakespeare’s original play, you may well be lost while watching the movie. At only an hour and sixteen minutes, obviously the majority of the text has been cut, and of course, not everything is from Shakespeare’s play even at that, because the filmmakers aren’t really interested in another version of Julius Caesar, but in how the prisoners respond to Julius Caesar – what they make of the words and ideas behind the play. It is ironic, of course, to have prisoners talk about liberty – and their idea of honor may differ from ours. And the central debate behind Julius Caesar is of course whether the conspirators are “justified” in killing the man they once adored, but who has now become a tyrant. As with any production of Caesar, the character playing Brutus (Salvatore Striano), is the most fascinating. The other conspirators are after their own means by killing Caesar – it’s not for the greater good, but for their own. But Brutus is different. He believes in what he does.

There are wonderful moments in Caesar Must Die – an unforgettable audition sequence for example, where the prisoners have to say the same lines in two different ways – once filled with sorrow and regret, once with angry and rage. These guys, it must be said, are pretty damn good (at least some of them).

I admired Caesar Must Die more than I actually enjoyed it. It is certainly a fascinating idea for a movie, and the film looks great in black and white. But I cannot help but think that the idea here is better than the execution. The structure is essentially a play (the rehearsals) inside a play (Julius Caesar) inside a movie (Caesar Must Die). The best moments are when the prisoners connect with the dialogue and themes of Shakespeare’s play – and struggle, like anyone else, in the best way to convey their meaning to an audience. But there are moments when the Taviani’s lay things on a little thick. Nearly every review I have read mentions the line, late in the movie, where a prisoner looks directly at the camera and says “Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison”. The idea behind the line, that art can free you only so much, is a decent one. The execution comes across as phony, and trying too hard. While there is a raw intensity to the prisoners, they are not exactly polished actors, and subtlety is not their strong suit.

Still, the movie is a fascinating experience, and as a lover of black and white films, one that is wonderful to look at on the big screen. I don’t think the film comes together to make a wholly conclusive statement, but it’s an interesting film to say the least.

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