The Bard behind bars: Murderers, thieves and miscreants enact Shakespeare in the Taviani brothers' striking miniature.
All the world’s a prison in Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die, both literally and figuratively. Entirely set inside an Italian maximum security penitentiary which becomes an elaborate stage for an inmate-performed adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the film imagines the artistic process as a way to illuminate the deep repression of being detained in a compact, tense environment.
This construct allows the Tavianis to explore the relationship between space and emotion: rage and vulnerability, artistic freedom and physical confinement, loyalty and betrayal. As a result, the line between fantasy and reality, character and characterisation, blurs to the point of abstraction.
"I kill myself with twice the anger with which I killed you," screams Brutus (Salvatore Storaro) during the play’s bracing finale and the film’s opening sequence, establishing a central theme of guilt that will help reveal the overlap between each man and their fictional doubles.
From here, the Tavianis flash back to the production’s birth, envisioning it in saturated black and white in order to further confirm this pattern of aesthetic juxtaposition. The audition process is especially invigorating in that each man is asked to act out two different emotional scenarios for their director. One is a representation of anger, while the other signifies sadness and regret. It’s fascinating to watch these men so successfully inhabit both personas with effortless precision, yet retain their own unique personality and regional identity.
While Caesar Must Die certainly adheres to the conventions associated with most 'putting on a show' films, it manages to make the more familiar moments feel fresh and dynamic. Take the Tavianis’ fluid approach to filming the rehearsals, usually a tedious exercise in uncinematic blocking. Initially, the actors are confined to one room, reading lines with the director in a very traditional fashion. But this process eventually spreads out to other spaces in the prison as the actors disappear further into their roles.
Entire scenes take place in cramped cells, corridors lined with bars and exercise cages surrounded by chain-link fence. It quickly becomes clear that even the practicing of lines comes to represent a form of artistic release for these men, their deeply invested emotional exchanges a collective way to alleviate an overwhelming sense of isolation. Which makes the end of the play all the mor wrenching.
In the climactic moments, after the applause garnered by their production has faded into silence, each cast member returns to their cells for the last time. Captured in one static shot after another, this montage of melancholy clearly signifies the end of a shared artistic experience and the return to a life lived alone. This stings hard, each shot dissolving into the next as an iron door shuts with absolute finality.
Caesar Must Die may highlight the improvisational joy created by theatre in the most unlikely of places, but it’s never in question that this is only a momentary reprieve from the burdens of real life, especially for those sinners condemned by time.
The surprise Golden Bear-winner finally arrives in cinemas.
The Taviani brothers blur perspective and location in their interesting riff on Julius Caesar.
Deeply felt melancholy lingers long after the credits roll.