Set entirely in Rebibbia prison, on the outskirts of Rome, “Caesar Must Die,” which opens in New York on February 6th, is not easy to describe, and its impact is even harder to account for. It starts and ends with scenes from a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”; in between, we follow six months of rehearsal. The actors are genuine prisoners from the prison’s maximum-security wing, who throw themselves into the well-known saga of tyranny, liberty, and violent resolution with a gusto born of experience. Yet this is not a documentary. Written and directed by the Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, the movie is in fact highly formalized, with the actors following a script both onstage and off, and the free play of their personalities confined by the rigorous command of the camera. The result feels, like Shakespeare’s play, at once ancient and dangerously new.
Disorientation begins at the auditions. I happen to love auditions on film, although, as a rule—in “The Commitments,” say, or “The Fabulous Baker Boys”—they tend to be comedy-colored, tinged with a casual self-consciousness about the dramatic process. Not so here. Each prisoner is asked to recite his name, parentage, date of birth, and place of origin—first as if seeking entry to the country, while bidding his wife farewell, and then, immediately afterward, as if under interrogation. The responses, from wrath and dismay to a fool’s capering, are as broad as the range of dialects and accents, and as distinctively graven as the faces. Look at Giovanni Arcuri, for instance, effortlessly imposing in his bulk, and therefore cast as Caesar, or at Juan Dario Bonetti, swift and puckish, with his conviction for drug trafficking and his devil’s grin. Some of the prisoners’ offenses and sentences are listed onscreen; a man named Cosimo Rega, whose graying beard and sunken eyes (which require reading glasses) lend him a professorial, if haunted, mien, has committed murder. For this, he is serving “life meaning life”—a terrible phrase, implying no chance of parole. He wins the part of Cassius, who, as Shakespeare says, “smiles in such a sort / As if he mock’d himself, and scorn’d his spirit / That could be mov’d to smile at any thing.” Exactly.
Not that we get straight Shakespeare. I was half hoping that the Tavianis would take their cue from Grigori Kozintsev, whose 1964 film of “Hamlet,” a masterpiece by any measure, uses Boris Pasternak’s translation for the Russian speakers and Shakespeare’s original for the subtitles, but that would be impractical here, and what the performers learn is a roughened précis in prose. Occasionally, the real thing will break through, as when Cassius urges Brutus to “think of the world”—a bitter entreaty, in the mouth of a jailbird. “Julius Caesar,” of course, is lean and hungry stuff, bereft of comic leavening and the plaiting of subplots, and the most electrifying aspect of “Caesar Must Die” is the way that, at certain junctures, without our noticing, Shakespeare shades into normal dialogue. Not only is there no loss of pressure; if anything, you can sense the whole room tensing up. “You’re so good, it really suits you, with that little face.” So the lofty Arcuri tells Bonetti, while pinching his cheek. “This isn’t in the script, Caesar doesn’t say that,” Bonetti protests. Arcuri, softly: “He would, if he knew you.” Such is the inextricable chord of fiction and fact.
Anyone who admires the Tavianis will recognize that mysterious music. Their first masterpiece, “Padre Padrone” (1977), was based on the memoir of Gavino Ledda, who had been brought up as a poor shepherd in Sardinia; and it was Ledda himself who prefaced the movie, pointing out the boy playing his younger self and the actor playing his dictatorial father. And thus, without fuss or friction, the fable came to life, and the Tavianis’ easy shuttling between authenticity and make-believe continues, as the new movie proves, to this day. We see it in the tonal shifts, as the theatrical performance of “Julius Caesar,” in velvety color, makes way for Bressonian black-and-white in the rehearsal rooms. And we hear it when Caesar’s body lies in the recreation yard, and the inmates rattle the grilles on their windows and shout their support first for Brutus and then, in their noisy fickleness, for Antony.
Rebibbia is a few miles northeast of the Theatre of Pompey, where Caesar was slain, and it’s impossible not to be stirred by the thought of the story—written down by Plutarch, translated centuries later into French, and thence into English by Sir Thomas North, from whom the thieving Shakespeare stole so much—coming back full circle to the city where it began. When Pope Benedict visited Rebibbia, in 2011, he lamented the indignity of overcrowding there, and the Italian Minister of Justice, Paola Severino, who joined him that day, called it a “place of profound suffering.” It would be naïve to pretend that the Tavianis, however expert and engulfing their film, can provide more than temporary relief; and yet, as “Caesar Must Die” suggests, there is no earthly reason that mercy and compassion cannot cohabit, like cellmates, with the austerity of art.
(Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, Feb. 4, 2013)