Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
Original Title: Cesare deve morire
Italy, 2012. Kaos Cinematografica, Stemal Entertainment, Le Talee, La Ribalta-Centro Studi Enrico Maria Salerno, Rai Cinema. Screenplay by Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani, based on the play Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Cinematography by Simone Zampagni. Produced by Grazia Volpi. Music by Giuliano Taviani, Carmelo Travia. Film Editing by Roberto Perpignani.
We open on the final scenes of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar being performed on a stage for an enraptured audience. The play ends, the audience applauds passionately, and the actors head off the stage and back to, here’s the surprise, their prison cells. We then flash back a number of months and learn that we are at Rome’s Rebibbia Prison, a maximum-security facility that includes among its offerings a dramatic program that allows the inmates to take part in creating theatre (and no surprise the choice this year involves a play that has a mostly male cast, and there’s only so many times you can do Beckett’s Waiting for Godot).
The Taviani Brothers learned about this program and headed straight to Rebibbia to collaborate with the inmates on a film that observes as they rehearse their scenes in the spaces that they inhabit, intoning the Italian translation of Shakespeare’s verse next to barred windows or in common eating and sleeping areas, at times attended by their director who guides them through their emotional exploration of the text. The prisoners taking part in this project are not the cuddly movie versions of inmates, nor are they misunderstood victims of an unjust society, we get all their rap sheets at the beginning and learn that we are about to watch murderers and Camorra mafia men put on a show, but there’s no lack of talent among them and the performances they give come off as the solid work of professionals (in one case, Salvatore Striano, who plays Brutus, actually is a professional as well as a Camorra gangster, and has been pardoned since this was filmed and gone on to a successful career).
There is likely an argument to be made about the questionable morality of exalting these figures through turning them into admirable movie icons, but less controversial is the fact that the Tavianis remove a great deal of spontaneity and excitement from the proceedings with the dry manner that they film this process: a moment in which the actors break from the text to have an argument feels scripted, and there’s a bit too much contrivance in the staging for it to feel like the creation of art is springing rebelliously out of the narrow strictures of tolerance that the jail’s overseers provide these men. Its having won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival suggests something far more inspired than what we get here, but it is an interesting experience with more than a few takeaways.
European Film Award Nominations: Best European Film; Best European Director (Vittorio Taviani, Paolo Taviani); Best European Editor
Berlin Film Festival Award: Golden Bear