Caesar Must Die melds narrative and documentary in a drama-within-a-drama. The film was made in Rome's Rebibbia Prison, where the prisoners are preparing to stage Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. After a competitive casting process, the roles are eventually allocated, and the prisoners begin exploring the text, finding in its tale of fraternity, power and betrayal parallels to their own lives and stories. Hardened criminals, many with links to organised crime, these actors find great motivation in performing the play. As we witness the rehearsals, we see the inmates also work through their own conflicts, both internal and between each other.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Now aged in their 80s, Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani returned to their roots in docudramas with this fascinating although flawed examination of the staging of Julius Caesar by the inmates of a grim institution in Rome.
It made sense for Cavalli to allow the men to speak in their own dialects and to take some liberties with the text
In some respects, Caesar Must Die evokes the spirit of the brothers’ 1977 opus Padre Padrone, the true story of an illiterate shepherd who overcame his brutal father to master Greek and Latin and become a famous writer.
Except here it can be said that the prisoners – hard-bitten lifers and others serving long sentences – have only themselves to blame for their choices in life, and most have little or no chance of redemption. Staging the play does offer them a temporary respite from the prison’s routine as well as an outlet for artistic expression and an opportunity to bask in the applause of an appreciative audience from beyond the walls.
However, at 76 minutes the film feels incomplete, barely conveying any real sense of how dire is life within the maximum-security wing of Rebibbia Prison, and only the briefest details of each inmate/performer’s crime and length of sentence are provided.
Also, the filmmakers take creative license a step too far by disclosing in the end credits the most accomplished member of the cast, Salvatore Striano, who plays Brutus, was pardoned in 2006 and went back to jail for this production. Since his release he has pursued a career as an actor with roles in films such as Gomorrah and Napoli, Napoli, Napoli, so he’s hardly an amateur like his former cellmates.
The film opens in bright colour with the climactic scenes of Shakespeare’s tragedy involving the death of Brutus, after which each performer is locked in his cell. It then switches to black-and-white six months earlier, showing the needlessly repetitive audition process followed by the rehearsals, some as the men are confined to their cells, others as they are allowed to move through the drab prison, all under the watchful eye of theatre director Fabio Cavalli.
Some of these staged re-enactments seem authentic, particularly when the burly Giovanni Arcuri, who has an imposing presence as Caesar in the mould of a Tony Soprano, departs from the script to threaten a fellow performer who had annoyed him, while others seem forced and unconvincing.
There are a few humorous moments, as when one inmate fakes an American accent and sings and shimmies to the tune of Cole Porter’s 'I've Got You Under My Skin’.
It made sense for Cavalli to allow the men to speak in their own dialects and to take some liberties with the text, without robbing the play, or the docudrama, of its dramatic power.
The final sequence, also in colour, enables most of the cast to show plenty of passion, spirit and dramatic flair. The weakest link is Antonio Frasca as a colourless Mark Antony, whose rendition of the famed 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen" speech is uninspiring.
The choice of play is inspired as the themes of rivalry, betrayal, assassination and regret, plus references to 'men of honour" and 'men of justice," all gain an extra cadence spoken by men who are in jail for murder, drug running, Mafia affiliations and other serious crimes.
Cosimo Rega, who commands attention as Cassius, no doubt speaks truthfully when he remarks that "it sounds like this Shakespeare lived in the streets of my city," meaning Naples.
The men’s whoops for joy and hugs as applause erupts at the end seem spontaneous; perhaps for a moment they could forget their surroundings.
Simone Zampagni’s cinematography is equally impressive in stark mono and in glorious colour, while the sparing use of music, including a haunting saxophone, is effective. The film won the top prize, the Golden Bear, at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival and five trophies at Italy’s David di Donatello awards including best film, director and producer.