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
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
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
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.
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
Written by William Shakespeare and the Taviani brothers
With Giovanni Arcuri, Salvatore Striano, Cosimo Rega
Running time: 76
Check with theaters for subtitle information.