Caesar Must Die, the Taviani brothers’ latest film, a semidocumentary that follows the staging of a production of Julius Caesar in an Italian maximum security prison, is the most gripping and brilliant Shakespeare production put on film since Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. The movie isn’t only a performance of the play itself – we see the director auditioning inmates for roles and coaching them on how to work on their roles – but the bulk of the film shows the actual prisoners learning, rehearsing and performing the play. Purists will frown on the fact that we don’t see them recite the entire text, but what we do see utterly captures the spirit of Julius Caesar and examines the questions it raises in a compelling and original way.

The film, which won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2012, opens with the climax of the production. The inmates bask in their applause gratefully. But instead of going out to a bar to celebrate like any other group of actors, they are led, one by one, back to their cells. This choice of opening with the finale works well and, obviously, we know what the end of the play is going to be in any case.

The Tavianis then shift to black-and-white as we go back to the beginning: We follow the casting process and meet the actors. Their auditions consist of each of them simply stating his name and details about his family, such as his father’s name and place of birth, but the director instructs them to give these details in a sad tone, and then an angry one. As they speak, their crimes and sentences – most are in prison for violent Mafia crimes or drug trafficking – are revealed in onscreen titles. Watching these men state the facts of their lives gives us all the back story we need about each of them in a singularly graceful way.

The film follows the rehearsals but also shows the cast in other situations, for example, reading lines to their cellmates or reciting soliloquies in the prison yard – a stark and effective setting for the drama of the play.

There are so many layers at work here. There is the fact that the prison is in Rome, and the prisoners themselves physically resemble frescoes of the ancient Roman leader and his comrades. And, of course, no one is more versed in power struggles than prisoners, and the dilemmas and conflicts of the play mirror the prison rivalries that involve life-and-death battle. In one scene, the prison conflicts among the inmates disrupt a rehearsal.

There have been so many reinterpretations of Shakespeare, you might wonder: Who needs one more? But seeing this film makes you realize what tepid and pretentious exercises so many of the updated and reworked Shakespeare productions have been.

For English-speaking audiences whose memory of this classic has been tainted by dull high school classes and dated film and stage versions, hearing the dialogue performed in Italian makes it seem fresh. Even the 1953 version with Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, John Gielgud as Cassius and James Mason as Brutus looks a bit creaky alongside this movie. It’s simply difficult to describe the intensity of these jailed performers. What they lack in finesse, they more than make up for in conviction and intensity.

Giovanni Arcuri as Caesar brings to mind the big-lug persona of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. Cosimo Rega is a tough Cassius. But the real star here is Salvatore Striano as Brutus. Striano, who was convicted of mob-related crimes, blossomed so much as an actor behind bars that he was pardoned six years ago and has been acting professionally ever since. He is simply a movie star and will most likely become one of Italy’s most sought-after leading men. His Brutus is confused, desperate and angry.

The Taviani brothers, who have been making tepid literary adaptations and period dramas in recent years, first became known internationally for Padre Padrone, the story of a boy who escapes his brutal life in rural Italy. Caesar Must Die represents a welcome return to that kind of emotionally compelling storytelling.

CAESAR MUST DIE
Hebrew title: Kesar Hayav La’moot.
Directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani.
Written by William Shakespeare and the Taviani brothers With Giovanni Arcuri, Salvatore Striano, Cosimo Rega
Running time: 76 minutes.
In Italian.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.


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