Unable to snap up a ticket for this during Berlinale Film Festival (where it also won the grand prize), I’ve been itching to see Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire) for quite some time now. The latest from veteran Italian duo, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Padre Padrone, Kaos), it’s a documentary-fiction hybrid observing the rehearsals and final performance of William Shakespeare’s Roman masterpiece ‘Julius Caesar’. What makes this movie noteworthy is it’s idiosyncratic formalities: the play is being performed from Rome’s high security Rebibbia Prison, and the players are it’s incarcerated residents: an ensemble cast of murderers, drug dealers and thieves.
The brothers waste no time with needless exposition on the inmates’ backstories or crimes. Instead, the pair focus, with brutal proximity, how these criminals connect with the words of “The Bard”. Aside from the final, veracious performance, it’s all shot in stylised black and white, as we see the production being set up, the rehearsals in the prison courtyard, and the delicate moments these wrongdoers spend behind cell bars. As is often the case with the Taviani’s back-catalogue, there’s moments filmed in tender close-ups; loading objects such as an empty chair or a wooden sword an implausible subtext.
That meta-narrative carries over to the inmates themselves, and ends up confusing us. Not only are they performers in the Shakespearean sense, it quickly becomes clear that they are being presented as poetical cyphers of their real life criminal selves. It’s a shameful attempt at allegory – expressing how the elder words of Shakespeare relate to contemporary penal society, and in doing so removes any sense of empathy we would have otherwise had for the inmates.
Although the “play-within-a-film” gimmick is a good one, it’s hardly original (Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and Canadian filmmaker John Greyson’s Lillies are both really worth a look). It’s also not the best part of Caesar Must Die. With such astounding performances and beautiful adaptation of Shakespeare’s words, one wishes that the Tatvianis abandoned the ostentatious stunts and luscious monochrome display, and instead focused plainly on documenting these ostracised people. An extraordinary bunch, who find happiness, solidarity and hope in creative expression.