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Caesar Must Die takes Shakespeare to the slammer

Roman prisoners stage Shakespearean tragedy in Caesar Must Die.

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With Caesar Must Die, which opens Friday at Music Box, Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani embrace the two primary influences on their six-decade career: classic literature and Italian neorealist cinema. The film was shot at a maximum-security prison in Rome as inmates rehearsed a production of Julius Caesar. The U.S. documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005) also recorded a prison staging of Shakespeare, but rather than show how the production impacts the prisoners' lives, as that movie did, the Tavianis focus on the play itself, assembling an abridged version of the show from months of rehearsal footage. The Tavianis regard the prisoners as human beings, not criminals or cogs in the penal system, and their sympathetic portraits show the direct influence of neorealist filmmakers like Vittorio De Sica, who famously cast poor and otherwise marginalized citizens in his dramas. Yet the Tavianis' ultimate goal here is to bring a sense of immediacy to Shakespeare and, in so doing, consider why his work endures.

The brothers were inspired to become filmmakers in high school when they saw Roberto Rossellini's neorealist milestone Paisan (1946). After graduating from college in the early 1950s, they made a string of documentaries, some funded by screenwriter and frequent De Sica collaborator Cesare Zavattini. These movies followed in the neorealist tradition, emphasizing politics and current events; L'Italia non e un Paese Povero (1960) dealt with the lives of peasants, and San Miniato, July 1944 (1954) chronicled a massacre of Tuscan villagers during World War II. When the Tavianis turned to fiction films in the 1960s, that connection to neorealism persisted. Like their role models, they dealt with marginalized and/or politically radicalized subjects and shot almost exclusively in real, and typically unattractive, locations.

Before they discovered cinema, though, the Tavianis' first love was literature, and this comes through in their films as well. When they were children, their father took them to the modernist dramas of Luigi Pirandello, whose self-conscious play with literary forebears was revelatory to them. As Vittorio told Carlo Lizzani in the TV documentary Talking About Cinema (included as an extra on the DVD of the brothers' Night of the Shooting Stars), "We loved the destruction of meaning in his work . . . this discovery that the world is not how it seems." The Tavianis' films hint at a similar discovery; the realistic surfaces conceal the world of eternal human conflicts revealed in classic literature. Whether they're directing original screenplays or adapting classics (by Pirandello, Goethe, and Tolstoy), they conjure a sense of timelessness. Their movies are notably lacking in medium shots; they tend to present characters either in long shots, which render them mere figures in the landscape, or in close-ups, which make them seem like towering presences. In either case the story feels larger than life.

This style has a peculiar way of obscuring political concerns while making them seem monumental at the same time. Even the Taviani films that center on activist characters, like The Subversives (1967) or St. Michael Had a Rooster (1972), maintain an ironic distance from their subjects, suggesting an ambivalence about leftist politics rather than the conviction of Rossellini's influential war trilogy (Open City; Paisan; and Germany, Year Zero). It's worth noting, however, that in 1977, Rossellini presided over the Cannes film festival jury that awarded the Palme d'Or to the Tavianis' Padre Padrone. In their work, realism is a tool to understand something grander than immediate experience.

Characteristically, the Tavianis seem interested in the prisoners of Caesar Must Die for the timeless qualities they evoke. The film begins with the final scene of the prisoners' public performance, but its first major sequence, which colors the rest of the film, flashes back to six months before the show, as the play was being cast. Theater director Fabio Cavalli asks each auditioning prisoner to state his name, birthplace, and other pertinent information—first tearfully, then angrily. The Tavianis cut between a dozen such displays, the prisoners emoting in front of a blank wall. Seeing these men respond to the same prompt leads one to consider what makes each distinct. One notes physical differences as well as shared behavioral traits; every prisoner seems vulnerable beneath his tough demeanor.

As with the auditions, many of the rehearsal scenes transpire against plain backdrops. In fact the Tavianis often seem to be going out of their way to avoid more complex ones. Many of the crowd scenes play out inside the prisoners' cells, the men pointing at their windows to suggest a setting just beyond the wall. Caesar's funeral is staged in the prison courtyard, though without any extras. The prisoners playing Brutus and Mark Antony deliver their monologues to no one; the Tavianis conjure the image of a crowd with the sound of their voices echoing against the brick walls. Caesar Must Die has the fewest long shots of any Taviani brothers film I've seen, yet the minimalist interiors end up producing an effect similar to their famous landscapes. Lacking spatial definition, the monotone backdrops evoke infinite space.

More importantly, they bring Shakespeare's drama into sharp focus. At 77 minutes the movie contains only the most crucial scenes from Julius Caesar, yet the Tavianis condense the play expertly, revealing the essence of each major character. What doesn't come through in the dialogue is expressed by the prisoners' faces and bodies. Hardened by years in jail, the men embody the cunning, duplicity, and violent instinct of Shakespeare's conspirators. Cavalli recognizes this: his adaptation, much of it in modern Italian, emphasizes physical action and direct statements. Likewise, whenever the Tavianis show him directing, his advice to the prisoners is strictly practical, like suggesting a certain emotional inflection. The only thematic interpretation comes near the beginning of the film, when Cavalli introduces Julius Caesar as a play "about a great Roman general who, after making Rome great and powerful, gives in to the temptation of tyranny, and for this he is assassinated by his fellow politicians."

Put in those terms, Julius Caesar sounds as if it could take place at any place or time, which is exactly the Tavianis' point. Over the course of the movie, the prisoners merge with the characters they're playing, often commenting on the production through poetic, scripted asides that blend in with Cavalli's adaptation of the play. (They also continue to perform scenes after they've returned to their cells.) Ultimately the distinction between player and character—and between documentary and fiction filmmaking—are less important than Shakespeare's lasting insights. As the Tavianis present it, Julius Caesar reveals that powerful men are forever undermined by the desire to dominate others, and that politics merely enlarges this conflict. If the brothers view these men with admiration, that may be because prisoners internalize this dynamic better than anyone else.

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