Director: Paulo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani
Cast: Cosimo Rega
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“Thus we can proclaim to Rome and to the whole world… this is a man!”
So recites an actor on a brightly lit stage. The audience thunders applause. The performers bow. Then they file out of the room and back into their cells. Welcome to Rebibbia Prison, Italy.
Directed by Paulo and Vittorio Taviani, Caesar Must Die is Shakespeare as you’ve never seen it before. Starring a host of prisoners, it follows the rehearsals for an in-house production of Julius Caesar. Why? Why not? Is there a better fit for Shakespeare’s backstabbing Rome than behind bars? “Have we never known bullying Caesars in our own home?” asks one, pointedly.
A jailed Caesar adds a whole new layer to the Bard’s brutal cutthroat world. When Julius says “Cassius has a lean and hungry look”, he means it – and there’s a jolly good reason why.
Following in the footsteps of Paul Schoolman’s StringCaesar, an original film about Caesar shot in a South African prison, Caesar Must Die presents the flipside of the coin. Here we see behind the scenes, a stark, black-and-white world of memorising lines and flexing muscles. We never see the finished piece – or do we?
We first meet our cast when they turn up to audition. Asked to give their details, first in an angry voice, then sad, the Tavianis construct a strangely humorous montage of human expression. Then, once the parts are all allocated, we learn the truth about them: dynamic clips change to static mugshots, their crimes written out over the top.
That’s where the Italian brothers pack their punch, reminding us throughout that these convicts, no matter how guilty or severe their crimes, are still human beingst. “He’s really good playing the schemer,” one inmate says halfway through Caesar Must Die. “What the fuck are you saying? You’re messing up your lines,” comes the reply.
It’s easy to forget that this film is firmly in docu-drama territory. There’s no raw handheld footage here: instead, we are treated to graceful tracking shots and carefully staged set pieces. Are these faked rehearsals? Have we been watching a performance all along? Who exactly are the inmates and who are the actors?
As soon as you start wondering that, the Tavianis have succeeded. Caesar Must Die is an inspiring demonstration of the transformative power of theatre. “Let me speak to the end, then judge me with your wisdom,” intones Brutus at the end. Caesar has never seemed more real.