Deceptively modest on nearly all accounts, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die employs seemingly minor directorial contrivances to ruminate on a unique quarrel. The particular struggle at the heart of the filmmaking brothers’ latest is between expressive embellishments, both in image and in dialogue, that often reveal the dense complexity of a narrative subject and the pained yearning to depict brutal “truths” as they are and exist in the world. In other words, can a film truly show our “reality,” let alone the realities of those we don’t know and may never know, with anything resembling honesty?
It’s a theme explored to tremendous emotional and cerebral depths in Abbas Kiarastomi’s recent masterpiece, Certified Copy, and, of course, it can be found just as palpable in the roaring thematic fancies of Shakespeare. A Midsummer’s Night Dream, for instance, brings both the great pleasures and dangers of imagination and creative embellishment to vivid, antic life, as does Twelfth Night. For the Tavianis, Julius Caesar provides a remarkable avenue for this discourse, set in a subtly fantastical vision of Italy’s Rebibbia prison, as a director (Fabio Cavalli) prepares a cast of convicts to stage the play for an audience in a converted auditorium.
In a prison setting, performance holds its own import: The need to present one’s self as an alpha, if not the alpha, is essential to not only prowess but survival. And the Tavianis add a level of depth and curiosity to their film by casting actual convicts, many of which remain incarcerated to this day. But the more fascinating directorial decision is to have their performers slip, often seamlessly, in and out of Shakespeare’s text without notification to take up grievances, curtailed philosophical musings, or issues of imprisonment. One of the film’s most humorous and oddly human moments involves a trio of guards watching a scene being practiced in the yard, themselves speaking in the distinct and controlled tenor of a Horatio or Rosencrantz.
Which is to say that the Tavianis find an arguably small, quite elegant, and preposterously effective way to blend the narrative and documentary elements at furious play in Caesar Must Die. In one way, it casts the film as an ideal fantasia of nobility in prison’s power struggles, that in its very existence suggests the degrading, painful, and horrifying reality of such brutal feuds and conspiracies; in this, it shares kinship with Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, though bereft of that film’s sublime style and filmic innuendos. More so, it makes a persuasive, moving argument for the use of art in criminal rehabilitation without ignoring the real prison, both literally and emotionally, these men live in. To paraphrase one prisoner, knowledge of art makes confinement all the more real and final.
And yet, the film remains largely humorous and the Tavianis sense of composition and visual rhythm focuses on elemental pleasures, not the least of which being the precise and evocative work of first-time DP Simone Zampagni. Indeed, the film has an unerring interest in faces, skin, and bodies, from the hardened pudginess of Giovanni Arcuri, as Caesar, to the melancholic, scruffy, yet alert visage of Salvatore Striano, as Brutus. In Striano’s performance especially, the Tavianis strike at the very heart of the cathartic, possessing passion that art and artifice can stir in even the most forgotten and regretful of citizens. As Striano performs Brutus’s eulogy for Caesar, prisoners cry in their cells or yell triumphantly from their cell windows, surrendering allegiances to another prisoner. It’s an exhilarating sequence, at once inspirational, terrifying, and timely: the seductive power of brilliant performance to render even the hardest of individuals into dedicated followers.