It’s one thing to talk about the timelessness of Shakespeare – it’s another thing to prove it. Of course we will never grow tired of watching talented actors dig their teeth into the Bard’s meaty prose, but so often directors of both the stage and screen are content to let the language alone stand as the attraction of their production. That’s enough, but it’s a trend that indulges our tendency to remember this or that version by its lead performances rather than the surrounding accoutrements – for cinematic examples, you’ve got McKellen’s “Richard III,” Pacino’s “Merchant of Venice,” Branagh and Olivier’s everything. The significance of the words takes a back seat to their execution. As a secondary thought, these safe films often grasp for relevancy by making themselves “more accessible to modern viewers” – as if Shakespeare himself lived in Ancient Rome or Faerie – simply plopping the playwright’s characters into a contemporary setting (see Ralph Fiennes’ recent “Coriolanus,” for instance).
“Caesar Must Die” is that more rare film that bothers to find an environment where Shakespeare’s work doesn’t just function, it thrives. Inside the walls of Rome’s Rebibbia Prison, the machinations of murder and deceit that make up a production “Julius Caesar” take on horribly direct consequence. The prisoner/actors, hardened criminals convicted of homicide, drug trafficking, rape and much else besides, are not performing their roles – they are reliving them.
Upon reflection it can be difficult to wrap your head around all the layers in this film. There is the play itself, which, when rearranged for an all-male cast such as this, takes on an even more relentlessly violent quality than the original. That alone might make for an intriguing twist, but “Caesar Must Die” is not just a straight-up adaptation, but a document of the artistic process: we see the prisoners audition, rehearse, and ultimately stage their own production of the play. On top of that, the film’s directors (the Taviani brothers, respected stalwarts of the Italian cinema) recruited real-life Rebibbia prisoners rather than use professional actors. Yet this is no documentary – every scene is highly scripted, even (or especially) those moments when art and “reality” start to blend into each other.
What may sound like a headache-inducing experiment in meta-textuality is remarkably and consistently engaging. The Tavianis never stray far from the play itself (or at least, the prose translation on display in the subtitles, which for its part is a nimble approximation of Shakespeare’s verse), hewing strictly either to riveting recitations or the occasional interruption of the prisoners’ own drama. Even in the latter instances, however, we rarely ever learn specifics about these men – the few details we glean, in fact, seem to illuminate the conscience of the characters more than the actors inhabiting them. The play’s the thing, indeed.
For instance, in a scene as quietly thrilling as any on the screen this year, the scheming Decius (a terrifyingly natural scoundrel by the name of Juan Dario Bonetti) persuades the hesitant Caesar (an effortlessly intimidating hulk, Giovanni Arcuri) to attend a Senate meeting, so that his assassins might fulfill their bloody plot. Arcuri tosses a few extra insults Bonetti’s way, causing the charmer to splutter, “That’s not in the play. Caesar doesn’t say that.” Arcuri’s reply, dripping with the condescension of an emperor: “He would’ve if he’d known you.”
There is the key: it is not just the language that makes Shakespeare immortal, but the spirit behind it. The venom, the desperation, the pride, the despair. I have never totally held with those who unilaterally praise Shakespeare’s psychology, but the eloquence of his emotions is undeniable. Literally trapped by the walls around them, the prisoners of Rebibbia clearly found something that resonated in the tragedy of Caesar and Brutus, two men who find themselves unable to escape the doom of their fate. At another reality-straddling juncture, Brutus (Salvatore Striano, so talented that he has continued acting as a professional since gaining his freedom) unexpectedly breaks down crying, explaining that in Shakespeare’s words he heard the voice of a former friend. Common sentiment can unite a Roman Senator and a lowly mafioso across the centuries. By looking not to just update its story but to play with its entire context, “Caesar Must Die” ends up reinforcing the authenticity of the original more than a more straightforward, “faithful” adaptation might.
And still there is more to discuss: what to make of the elegiac coda, in which our Cassius (Cosimo Rega), glancing around his cell, laments the end of the production? The Tavianis appear to be paying tribute not only to Shakespeare individually, but to the great freedom afforded by art in general. A play like “Julius Caesar” that so relentlessly hounds these criminals and prisoners with their past mistakes should be no release; yet still they find an escape in performing the tragedy of their own lives. It’s a haunting yet redemptive notion, that not even these men, who we might under different circumstances call monsters, are immune to artistic expression.
The film features stark, black-and-white cinematography (save for the very beginning and end) that complements the iconic properties of the action. The Tavianis fade from one scene to the next, uninterrupted, not bothering with natural transitions: characters conversing in one location continue moments later somewhere completely different. At times they are clearly rehearsing, at others, it is not clear who they are speaking to: the production’s director, hiding just offscreen? Themselves? The audience?
Through these cunning formal decisions, Shakespeare takes on a primal quality: this play has happened, is happening, will always happen. This is Striano’s “Caesar,” Arcuni’s “Caesar,” the Taviani’s Caesar, but above all, Shakespeare’s “Caesar.”
Playing in select indie theaters.
Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars