Home Video Hovel: Caesar Must Die, by Craig Schroeder
Caesar Must Die is a film that has no easy way in. I wanted to start by comparing it to recent documentaries that have challenged the form’s traditional narrative paradigm, but implying that it’s a documentary creates a box to which it does not belong. And despite being a faithful interpretation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it isn’t really about Shakespeare or Julius Caesar. Caesar Must Die is a film, so provocative and strange, that any label applied to it would do it a disservice.
Caesar Must Die, from the Taviani Brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, is a modern, meditative and self-aware (without ever being insincere) homage to the Italian neorealism films of the 1940s. Taking place entirely inside the walls of Rebibbia Prison in Rome, it chronicles real-life prisoners rehearsing for a stage production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Despite being entirely scripted, all of the actors are actual inmates of Rebibbia, using their real names and willfully volunteering information on the crimes that landed them in prison. The film is bookended with color footage of the closing moments of Julius Caesar, as it is eventually performed by the inmates for their friends and family. But the majority of the film is shot in black and white, following the inmates as they “rehearse” for the big performance. In actuality, their rehearsals are scripted and stitched together to present Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But instead of set-pieces, pivotal scenes are played out in jail cells, corridors and prison yards. Costumes and props, aside from the occasional wooden sword, are fabricated from the inmate’s possessions.
While the film is experimenting with the boundaries of narrative storytelling, it never feels like an exercise. Whereas “seeing the strings” would normally be an oversight or the mark of a poor film, it is the premise of this one. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have such a complete understanding of their film, they are able to inform you you’re watching a staged performance and then dare you not to get lost in it.
Caesar Must Die is two stories playing out simultaneously, without parallel editing or other traditional plot devices. The first, and most obvious, is Julius Caesar, a story so engrained in our collected subconscious that even those who have no familiarity with Shakespeare’s work, still recognize “Et tu, Brute?” as a symbolic phrase of heartache and betrayal. Second, the film is an intimate portrait of Rebibbia Prison and its inmates; effectively presenting Shakespeare’s perennial tragedy concurrently with prison tales of redemption, anger, hope and reflection. Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech is delivered in a concrete prison yard to an audience of convicts. Brutus’ eventual betrayal plays out under the watchful eyes of Rebibbia guards. Scenes of the inmates rehearsing are interrupted by moments addressing the politics and rivalries inside Rebibbia Prison. In other scenes, inmates drift in and out of character to discuss the similarities between Shakespeare’s work and their own lives.
The Taviani Brothers present brilliant transformations by devoting a large segment of the film to the audition process, wherein each inmate is asked to perform the same scene twice, once through tears and once in anger. Most of these auditions smack with prison bravado and masculine vamping. Introducing the prisoners as such makes the film all the more effective when they assume their respective roles. Each prisoner turns in a performance that is outstanding, not despite their incarceration, but perhaps because of it. Their transition from cell to stage transcends their incarceration and presents Julius Caesar in a way that is as true as a production in London’s West End.
By blending Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy with the lives of real inmates, Caesar Must Die is making a larger statement on how people interpret, ingest and expel art and its universal appeal. It’s an exploration into the fortitude of seminal works like Julius Caesar. It’s an honest look at the Italian prison system and it provides personal insight into the humanity of criminals. Caesar Must Die is a film that, in a mere seventy-six minutes, has more to unpack and process than one viewing can allow.