A production of Julius Caesar in a prison might sound like a gimmick, but in the expert hands of brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, who made an international breakthrough with Padre Padrone 35 years ago, it's both a compelling reading of the Shakespeare play and an affecting humanist document. The movie, mostly shot in black and white, takes place in the high-security section of the Rebibbia prison in Rome. Apparently there was already a program in place for doing theater in the prison run by stage director Fabio Cavalli. The Tavianis suggested Julius Caesar as a project and shaped a script that includes the audition process and rehearsals in various prison locations over a six-month period, as well as documentary snippets featuring members of the cast, most of whom are real-life prisoners at Rebibbia.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is the raw effectiveness of the acting. Only one of the leads, Salvatore Striano, who plays Brutus, is a professional actor. He, too, however, was once a prisoner at Rebibbia—a juvenile offender released in 2006 who took to acting after being part of the prison theater program. The others, who are introduced in a revealing and humorous audition sequence, are doing time for a variety of crimes related to drugs and the mafia. Even as the novice actors struggle to learn their parts (played in each prisoner's own local dialect), cope with the tensions of prison life and work out the sometimes testy relations with each other, Julius Caesar is given a terrific staging. Inevitably, the roles they play affect the actor/prisoners in their daily life behind bars. The Tavianis make inspired use of starkly lit corridors in the prison to bring the play life. Where many a theater director has stumbled with the crowd scenes in the play (for instance, Mark Anthony speaking to the mob after Caesar's murder), these are handled deftly with effective camera placement and prisoners appearing in their cell windows at various points.
Even as we get caught up in the Shakespeare drama, we are always aware that we are watching a group of men who are incarcerated. It's almost redundant, and even a bit too obvious, when a prisoner says at the end of the movie, "Since I have known art, this cell has turned into a prison." By then, the Tavianis have made a far more eloquent statement about the human condition just simply with their movie.
The 50th New York Film festival runs from September 28 to October 14. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.