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Several weeks ago,  I had the opportunity to view Caesar Must Die (view the trailer, here) at the Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts. The film was the winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. This Italian quasi-documentary is filmed and directed by the lauded brother team of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani and concerns the staging of Julius Caesar in a Roman prison. The film is moving and meta-theatrical, creating slippage between what is real and staged in a most effective and jarring way.

(Caesar (Arcuri) & Soothsayer (Carusone) with ensemble)

The film is framed at its opening and conclusion by the truncated performance ofJulius Caesar at the prison theatre, followed by the applause of the audience, and the hugs and cheers of the inmates-cum-Shakespearean actors. Immediately following their triumphant performance, we see the guards return and lock the men back into their individual cells. Thus, likeShakespeare’s play, a tragedy of potential greatness (Caesar’s, Brutus’, and if we look ahead to Antony and Cleopatra, Marc Antony’s as well) cut down and ruined, we see these prisoners, men already ruined, brought to moments of actualized greatness on the stage.

Early on, we see the audition process. Each prisoner is asked to give his name, patronym, and  hometown as though he were at a border crossing. The first time, the prisoner is asked to imagine that his wife is waiting behind and that he will not see her again for a very long time. This brings several of the prisoners to tears. The second time, the prisoner is asked to give the same information, but lividly, as though he were to be denied entry. This is a wonderful introduction to the chosen cast members and we see their emotional range as actors. These are men who survived on the streets through acting: liars, cheats, and mobsters.

Most of the film covers the rehearsal process. As the men work together, they realize the parallels between their own lives and those of Shakespeare’s characters. They discover that Italy’s organized crime syndicates are not unlike the politics, alliances, and conspiratorial groups of ancient Rome. They know all about betrayal, revenge, and bloodshed. Tensions flare up between the actors. The actors repeat lines about ambition and greatness as they sweep the prison floors. Some make profound self-discoveries. They fall asleep in their bunks trying to reconcile the choices one makes and the fate allotted to all. All of their hands are stained in blood.

Giovanni Arcuri plays Caesar, and he has the weight — both physical and experiential — to play Caesar as a mob boss who needs to be stopped. Francesco Carusone plays the Soothsayer by drawing on his own region’s myths and folklore. Cosimo Rega as Cassius (Cassio) and Salvatore Striano as Brutus (Bruto) are the two standout performances, creating fleshed out and nuanced characters. While a few of the actor-inmates are serving the grave sentence, “life meaning life,” we find out at the end of the film that some have been released and Striano is actually a former inmate, now a professional film actor, who returns for the role of Brutus/Striano-as-brooding-prisoner. 

(Striano as Bruto)

Unlike a more straightforward documentary (such as the moving Shakespeare Behind Bars), the mise en scene suggests artfully arranged moments that only appear organic. The 35mm film quality is beautiful with a opalescent grey scale. There is a minimalist score,  and beautifully composed and framed shots.  It is in this last component that we see how the directors purposefully blur the distinction between documentary and scripted drama.

For example, as the prisoners rehearse the assassination scene, we see the guards above the courtyard (shot from a wonderful low angle) watching the performance and deciding to extend the actors’ recess time to let them finish the scene. The scene cannot be completely candid (the guards are obviously miked, the cameras know the guards will be watching, etc.), but the overall effect — that art momentarily trumps law, or that the guards find new respect for the prisoners as actors and men — is more important. There are many of these staged-unrehearsed moments in the film, adding to the larger meta-narrative of the power of Shakespeare’s verse, the transformation of these hardened criminals into actors, and the film’s argument that all of life’s interactions are performances. This is made most clear in sad denouement of the return to the prison’s cells, where a camera is already waiting for Cosimo Rega (Cassius/Cassio) who looks around his cell in a moving yet choreographed moment, and laments, “Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison.”

The film is currently touring the US and dates can be found here. This review originally ran in The Shakespeare Standard