Feb 8, 2013

Caesar Must Die!

This extraordinary film from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani may be the greatest screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and is one of the most magnificent films of their storied career.
There are no marquee names in this movie, no elaborate sets or costumes. The actors happen to be inmates of a maximum security prison in Italy. Some of them are members of organized crime, others are murderers, drug pushers, hardened criminals. The prison has a drama program and the Tavianis use the opportunity to tell a complex and movingly human story about pariahs who are considered inhumane. But Caesar Must Die is not a documentary. It is about the overpowering truth of art intersecting with the overpowering truth of reality. It is about truthfulness in fiction, and the freeing, humanizing power of art; it is about the genius of Shakespeare too, who has understood human nature through the ages like no one else. One keeps peeling layer after layer of meaning long after watching the film.
At the beginning, we see the end of the live performance of the play, the audience's applause, the elation of the actors after the performance. Then the Tavianis go back and introduce the players, their jail sentences written on the screen. At the casting call, Fabio Cavalli, the director of the play (who cowrote the script with the Tavianis) asks the inmates to state their names, the name of their father and where they are from, in two different ways. One, as if saying goodbye to their wives, and the other, angrily. He's trying to find out who has natural acting chops (surprisingly, at least among hardened criminals, many do).
Some of the aspiring actors are immediately transfixing, naturally at home with performing. Some are enormous hams, bursting with pizzazz. Just having to utter their names, where they are from and who their father is, puts these men in a highly emotional state. One inmate, reminded of these essential facts of life, cries so hard he can't even say his name. The director casts his Julius Caesar, his Brutus, his Cassius and other characters. Then the inmates go back to their cells. The opportunity to do the play has given these men a sense of freedom and possibility, but then they are reminded that they are not in imperial Rome and they are still locked up.
So far it looks like a documentary. But once the camera is allowed into the men's cells, we realize that this is much more staged than we thought. The directors use crisp black and white to show the rehearsals and their own staging of the play as a movie, whose backdrop is this jail. But they use color to record the live performance of the play.
Teasing our sense of reality, they also stage scenes with the actors that are not part of the play. The man who plays Brutus, a gifted thespian, is consumed with learning his lines correctly. He asks his cellmate to help him play a scene. This is evidently staged, as are other scenes where the men marvel at Shakespeare's ability to know their hearts intimately. These scenes are slightly jarring, for when the inmates are asked to play themselves, they seem much more self-conscious than when they are performing Shakespeare. There are scenes where the play reminds the men of the terrible deeds they have done, and they can't handle it. In some scenes, the cell doors are left open, further inviting the question of freedom into our minds. The choice of Julius Caesar is inspired: it takes place in ancient Italy, which the men can relate to, and it is about the capo di tutti capi, about a man abusing his extraordinary power. Murder, loyalty and revenge are topics that these men know too well. They are understandably blown away by Shakespeare, and they feel his words as their own.
In terms of filmmaking, the film is just magnificent. The cinematography is crisp and sharp and uses the prison as an epic, existential backdrop. The editing is masterful. The actors are extremely well directed and though the actual play is shortened and adapted, the Tavianis get to the marrow of the play. The inmates are more alive and compelling (in particular Brutus and Julius Caesar) than some professionals who can do Shakespeare in their sleep. It is their story. It's almost as if they don't need to pretend.
There is yet another fascinating layer to this movie, which is the social reality of the inmates. This transformational program is emotionally tough for the men, but it gives them something to excel at and it gives them dignity. A friend of mine was saying that this movie should be used to teach the play to high school students, which is the best idea ever. But I wonder if the drama program itself is something that could be applied in jails all over the world. It might seem to the merciless like it coddles criminals with artsy pieties, but in fact this role playing challenges the men emotionally and psychologically to face their own demons, while giving them back a sliver of humanity. It is profoundly healing, as evidenced by a postscript that lists the fates of the inmates and their progress after participating.
But it is the unwavering empathy, the profound wisdom of the Taviani brothers that makes this film a masterpiece. These two gentlemen, making such a brilliant gem at this stage in their lives, give me hope that as long as somebody uses the art of cinema to make films like this, movies will not have been been totally debased, and will be around to move us and change us forever.

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