Brother directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have dealt with literary adaptations before, having brought works by Tolstoy (Resurrection, The Divine and the Human) and Goethe (The Elective Affinities) to the screen. Their latest, Caesar Must Die, approaches an adaptation of sorts of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But, in fact, the directors claim to be merely documenting the preparations for the staging of the play by the theater company in Rome’s Rebibbia Prison, a company made up entirely of convicted criminals serving long (in a few cases, life) sentences. There’s no framing done by the directors; the film simply opens during one of the performances, after six months of preparation. The first scene of the film is of Brutus’s death, with the assassin pleading with comrades to kill him, to at once punish him and liberate him. The play ends, the audience rises, applauding, and the prisoners/actors are taken back to their cells. The Tavianis then show the production’s backgrounds, including a clever bit of exposition offered during the actor’s auditions. In order to be cast, the performers have to relate the details of their lives — name, date of birth, hometown — as though saying upset goodbyes to a lover. After they’re selected, each cast member’s crime and sentence is revealed; the play will be performed exclusively by drug traffickers, murderers, and mafiosos.
Caesar Must Die occupies an interstitial space that could be reasonably claimed by both adaptation and documentary. The prison’s auditorium is being renovated, so the cast must rehearse in rec rooms, hallways, and cells, the recontextualization allowing the script’s subtleties to breathe a little fresher. The directors wisely choose not to intercede in the play’s rehearsals; the scene work of the actor-prisoners becomes more hypnotic both despite and because of their setting. Scenes read in cells assume the pressured, anxious tone that the play’s conspirators need to communicate, and one scene — Marc Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar (“Friends, Romans, countrymen,” etc.) — becomes passionately affecting merely by situating Antony (Antonio Frasca) alone in a prison yard. He stands over the emperor, who lies dead and covered by a white sheet, as the rest of the cast crowds the windows of their cells to watch. The directors’ unwillingness to force their film into the structure of documentary liberates their subjects, allowing the actors to inhabit the script and comment on it. At one point Brutus (Salvatore Striano, now released and a professional actor) is so overcome by a line’s resonance in his own life that rehearsal stops and he crumbles to a bench. A moment later, after the director decides to end practice for the day, he bounces up and rehearsal continues, Striano having decided to bring the emotional weight to his performance.
Julius Caesar deals more with the guilt that haunts Brutus than it does with the fate of its title character; the emperor is offed early in the third act, but appears later as a harbinger of death for the assassin with whom he was closest. It’s this sense of guilt that the Tavianis wish to impart, it seems: the sense that the play’s cast perhaps best knows the experiences and images that make Brutus’s death such a relief, ultimately a liberation from a life that oppresses him with its reminders of his crime. After the play is received with a standing ovation — the film’s opening reprised — the directors choose to show the prisoners being led back to their cells, one by one. The longest tenured member of the theater company (Cosimo Rega, who plays Cassius) laments discovering art; he says his cell did not become a prison until then. It’s a tidy concluding moment, but also a problematic one, even manipulative: the scene suggests that art broadens a person’s — a prisoner’s — worldview, and yet the film until this point seemed intent on communicating that it’s in some way the actors’ incarceration that makes their performances compelling and memorable. The final scene isn’t ad-libbed: it’s canned, performed, in some measure faked. Either there’s the pat conclusion this scene offers, in which acting opens the minds of the prisoners and allows them to comprehend more of the beauty in the world while also lamenting their inability to participate in that world, or there’s what the rest of the film insists: the particular experiences of these men, their criminality and inability to empathize, makes them better artists and more capable performers. It’s only in the latter that the Tavianis offer something compelling with Caesar Must Die; with the former, they nearly betray themselves and their subjects.