Before they put Shakespeare in the slammer, the Taviani brothers locked up Tolstoy

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Solitary confinement, Taviani style, in St. Michael Had a Rooster
  • Solitary confinement, Taviani style, in St. Michael Had a Rooster
Tonight's your last chance to catch two of the best movies in town, Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills (playing at Landmark's Century) and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Caesar Must Die (playing at the Music Box). Given the popularity of Mungiu's previous feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, I expected Hills to hang around for longer than it did; I'm not surprised, though, that Caesar would vanish so quickly. The Tavianis aren't exactly name directors here anymore, despite having been staples of U.S. art houses for nearly two decades. The last film of theirs to receive a wide U.S. release was Fiorile, which came out here in 1994.

Truth be told, I hadn't spent much time with their filmography before researching the piece I wrote on Caesar for last week's issue. I had incorrectly assumed, based on the little I'd read about them, that their movies were stodgy pageants on historical or rustic subjects. I didn't expect to encounter so many details that were weird or just plain silly, such as the talking animals who turn up in the largely realistic Padre Padrone. Now that I've seen a number of their films, these details strike me as being central to their work, which I'd describe as an ongoing gentleman's quarrel with cinematic realism.

Most general summaries of Caesar Must Die make the film sound more realistic than it actually is, which might explain the lack of fanfare surrounding its U.S. release. As I noted in my essay, it's superficially similar to the 2005 social-issue documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars, but a more apt point of reference would be the Tavianis' own St. Michael Had a Rooster (1972), which also takes features a jailhouse setting. That film, loosely based on Leo Tolstoy's The Divine and the Human, follows the adventures of an anarchist revolutionary in late-19th-century Italy. The story breaks down into three acts: the first concerns the character's revolutionary activities, which the Tavianis shoot mainly in wryly detached long shot; the second condenses the ten years he spends in solitary confinement and transpires mainly in close-up; and the third depicts his release from solitary and transfer to another jail, during which time he discovers his politics of direct action are no longer in vogue with revolutionaries.

St. Michael Had a Rooster dramatizes the Tavianis' ambivalence about revolutionary politics at the dawn of the 1970s. The protagonist appears heroic at the beginning of the film, but seems more and more like a clown as it progresses. His transformation occurs throughout the lengthy jail sequence, which takes up nearly 30 minutes of film time. To keep himself sane in solitary, Giulio tries to re-create the daily schedule from his former life. A big part of his day was spent with his revolutionary committee, and in one of the film's funniest sequences, Giulio "continues" their meetings by himself. The Tavianis cut between Giulio in different spots in his cell, assuming different personas and engaging himself in radical arguments. This fanciful device anticipates certain sequences of Caesar Must Die, which use jail cells to distinctly unrealistic ends.

In Caesar, the transformation is meant to inspire a sense of awe, as the spirit of Shakespeare makes the confined spaces seem expansive. In St. Michael, the transformation only confirms the insular mind-set of the protagonist. Both films showcase the Tavianis' visual imagination, which prevents them from ever taking the world at face value.

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