Close-up in bloody colour: At centre stage, a defeated Brutus falls on his sword and the curtain rings down on another brooding production of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy. The appreciative audience applauds, then files out of the theatre back to their busy lives. The smiling cast basks in the applause, then, smiles waning, files through the high-security prison back to their cramped cells. Julius Caesar, the play, is over; Caesar Must Die, the film, has just begun.
That’s quite the potent opening scene, with its stark reversal of the usual Johnny-Cash-goes-to-Folsom tableau. There, the prisoners are the captive audience and the performers the temporary visitors. Not here. Yes, the actors are actual inmates in an actual theatre located in an actual penal institution – Rebibbia, outside of Rome. But don’t mistake this for a documentary. Instead, co-directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, those octogenarian siblings, are continuing to explore a theme that has obsessed them since way back in 1977’s Padre Padrone – the capacity of art to elevate the drudgery of existence. To that end, the brothers have written a script for their unique cast, which starts to unfold when colour suddenly gives way to black and white and the movie flashes back to “Six Months Earlier.”
Cut to Fabio Cavalli – an actual stage director – proposing to the cons a foray into Shakespeare, and inviting auditions. There follows an extended and intriguing sequence when the interested men show up in a spartan room, where they’re asked to pretend that a custom official is demanding their name, paternity, and place of birth, which they should offer twice – the first time sadly, then angrily. Not surprisingly, prison must be the perfect incubator of sadness and anger, because every one of the “performances” is astonishingly vivid. At the extremes of the emotional spectrum, at least, these guys are brilliant.
The principals are chosen. Giovanni Arcuri for Caesar – big, bulky, a bit morose; Salvatore Striano for Brutus – smaller, leaner, very supple; Antonio Frasca for Anthony – thick hair, tough look, almost handsome. As the others also selected gather around, an on-screen graphic informs us of the cast’s criminal history: Most are Mafia types, some are drug traffickers, all are serving heavy sentences. Clearly, they’re a breed intimately familiar with the culture of violence and the perils of overreaching ambition. So when the rehearsals start, in a colloquial Italian translation, no one needs explain the text to them.
Ingeniously, shot within the prison walls, these rehearsals become our look at the production, albeit a truncated version (the picture clocks in at a zippy 76 minutes) where Caesar’s assassination and Brutus’s soliloquy and Anthony’s funeral oration all fall hard upon each other. En route, the script occasionally asks the inmates to play themselves, as when Arcuri, genuinely annoyed with a cellmate, barks, “I’m not acting now,” or when another cast member, impressed by the Bard’s insights into backstabbers, remarks, “This Shakespeare lived on the streets of my city.” Strangely, though, such reality intrusions are the weakest part of the film. Indeed, the cons are far more convincing when they get out of their own heads and into character – for them, it’s an exhilarating “escape.” In that sense, they are intrinsically what the best actors always are: natural escape artists.
The ending circles back to the literal stage and to Brutus’s blood-red demise. The Tavianis have framed, imprisoned, their black-and-white movie in outbursts of colour, of theatrical illusion. Consequently, when Striano leaves behind Brutus to walk down the grey corridor to his steel-doored enclosure, his last words seem inevitable: “Since I got to know art, this cell is a prison.” That’s the power and the beauty and the cruelty of the liberal arts – they can and do liberate us but, sometimes, only to feel more acutely the bars of our confinement.