Italy's Taviani brothers explain the process of working with prison inmates for their latest award-winning film. (Italian Film Festival).
19 Sep 2012 - 3:59 PM  UPDATED 19 Sep 2012 - 3:59 PM

Paolo and Vittorio Taviani are sprightly octogenarians and bounced back this year, winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for their latest movie, Caesar Must Die, about prison inmates doing Shakespeare. Whether, as some critics have suggested, it all came down to jury head Mike Leigh, as it often does (the Terence Malick-loving Robert De Niro insisted on awarding the Palme d'Or to The Tree of Life when he was jury head in Cannes), Caesar Must Die is an impressive blend of theatre and film, of the kind that has long been Leigh's preoccupation.

if we were going to make a film about these inmates staging a play then
we’d allow them the freedom to express themselves in their own dialect

After starting their careers as journalists, the Tavianis' first film (with Joris Ivens) was the documentary L'Italia non è un paese povero (Italy is not a poor country), and they have since been outspoken politically. Their dramatic films though have mostly focused on more subtle social issues. Their most famous film, 1977's Palme d'Or winner, Padre Padrone, based on Gavino Ledda's autobiographical book, told of a Sardinian shepherd terrorised by his domineering father who escapes to become a celebrated linguist.

The dilemma that makes Caesar Must Die so intriguing is that we come to like these heavy-duty prisoners, mostly murderers of some kind, who are serving life sentences for mafia-related crimes. During their six months making the film in Rome's Rebibbia prison The Tavianis came to like them too.

“A friend of ours called and invited us to go to the Rebibbia prison to watch a group of inmates from the high security area of the prison recite some of Dante's Inferno,” Paolo Taviani recalls in our interview (via a translator) in Berlin. “We knew they'd been working on stage, thanks to their director, Fabio Cavalli, and although we were still a bit sceptical, we decided to go. It was a 40-year-old convict, and although they'd staged many Shakespearean tragedies in the past, on that occasion he was reciting the song of Paulo and Francesa from Dante's Inferno.

“Before reciting it he said, 'We inmates can understand much better than any of you what it means to suffer and the despair of not being able to love because we are split from our wives, our fiancés, our women. Of course, some of them are waiting outside, but it makes us suffer even more if we know they're not going to wait for us.' Then he started reciting it in his Neapolitan accent, and of course the Naples region is where many of the inmates are from as they were part of the mafia organisations.

“We realised while listening to this dialect that Dante's words were gaining new meaning from the interpretation he'd made of them in his own language. That helped us understand that if we were going to make a film about these inmates staging a play then we'd allow them the freedom to express themselves in their own dialect, as it really added a new dimension to either Shakespeare or Dante's language without betraying it. In fact, it made it sound truer, in a way. That's also why we chose Julius Caesar as the play we would do because it has a series of themes which are political and social and it has a lot to do with issues that involve the inmates.”

Paolo, born November 8, 1931, is sitting next to Vittorio, born September 20, 1929, and they seem a little like the odd couple. More the Walter Matthau, Paolo is larger and rather serious, while Vittorio, more the Jack Lemmon, is slighter in build, colourfully dressed, speaks faster and gesticulates wildly.

After asking what keeps them going, “Don't they get sick of each other?” I decide to throw a spanner in the works and tell them Viagra is bad for you. This makes Vittorio reel with laughter and he takes the question.

“Vigara is more in the private sphere so I won't comment on that!” he chuckles, “but besides that, we both have wives we talk to and we live with. [Paolo's wife, Lina Nerli Taviani, has been costume designer of many of their films but this clearly does not extend to prison garb.] When we are making a film we are on set together every morning and when we are not working, we usually see each other in the morning, anyway. We talk about what we heard on the news and read in the paper, and if the weather is good we go walking in the wonderful parks in Rome–and we talk and talk.

“In the afternoon we are totally separate; we don't even phone each other. In the holiday months of July and August we are totally separate. We have a house in the Aeolian Islands off the Sicilian Coast, and when our children were smaller, we spent summers there together in the house. But now we decide who is going in July and who is going in August. During those two months, we don't even hear from each other. We need some cleansing. But cinema and filmmaking is always a great adventure and there's no better way to do it than to share it with somebody you're close to. There are so many stories we'd love to see on screen; that is our joy, and it's always good to be able to discover something unexpected. To us, making a film means discovering something new we haven't seen or heard of before. What else can I add other than that cinema was invented by two brothers, the Lumiere brothers, and after us we see a series of imitations, the Dardennes, the Coen brothers, so we somehow set the example!” He chuckles again at what he has just said.

So can art and cinema change the world? Paolo takes this one.

“I don't think so. It would be good if it could. Cinema itself is changing, so who knows? Cinema is the latest artform, dating back one century, and it's turning into something else thanks to new technologies but it's nothing to be scared about. It's something that's important and young filmmakers and we too old filmmakers, who apparently look very young,” he finally chuckles, “have to learn this new language of cinema. But we do believe that art is one of the essential needs of the human being.

“I remember reading recently that in the African desert under the sand a theatre arena was discovered. This means the need for human beings to represent themselves and to reproduce themselves has been around a long time. Through art, people are trying to do something that can help them live and help them improve themselves, and they will hopefully improve the world in doing so. So in this sense, yes, art can help but it's really one of the inborn necessities of human beings.”

Caesar Must Die is screening at the Italian Film Festival, which is currently underway in Sydney and Melbourne, with other states to follow.