Shakespeare in a Roman prison
The prolific Taviani brothers (of Padre, Padrone and Night of the Shooting Stars) focus on the theme of a prison theatrical production in this emotionally strong documentary that focuses on rehearsals, the performance, and the cast’s return to their cells in the maximum security section of Rome’s Rebibbia prison in Cesare deve morire/Caesar Must Die, winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin and a lot of prizes and nominations in Italy. Unfortunately in the effort to make a polished and performance-like film, certain details have been fudged and when the thrill has passed, the whole thing feels a little less profound and informative than it might have been. Details of the production, such as the fact that the director, Fabio Cavalli, has put on plays at Rebibbia for years and built up a semi-pro cast among the inmates, and how the final performance was actually staged, are left unexplained, and worst of all, every shot, even where the actors have conflicts, rebel, or speak personal asides, seem so obviously pre-rehearsed that one feels robbed of true insight into what went on.
We begin with an overview of what appear to be auditions, in which prisoners are asked to say their basic coordinates — name, home town, address, and some throw in a lot more — in two moods: one as if they are leaving their family, and the other as if they have been delayed by the bureaucracy and are angry. So, sad and angry. And from here on, one is gripped by the macho theatricality of the inmates, all of whom come up with strong emotion and some of whom are astonishingly inventive. Next we see a group called out who have been selected as the cast for a proeduction in Italian of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which they are directed to perform in their own native dialects. The majority identify themselves as Neapolitan or Sicilian, though one says he has no dialect and just speaks Italian. Subtitles for the main cast members give their part and their sentence and the crimes for which they have been convicted — drug trafficking, murder, organized crime activities — for which some have already served many years and all will serve many.
Next the film shows the actors memorizing their lines and acting them out among themselves. The opening and closing segments are in color; all the rest, the shots in cells and in hallways and of rehearsals, is in strong, effective black and white (in contrast to the flat B&W digital transfer from color of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, also a part of the New York Film Festival). These guys are good, in the sense that they project well, speak clearly, summon up wellsprings of appropriate emotion, and have dramatic flair. On the other hand one may question whether some of them have the right faces to represent the Roman aristocracy. The use of dialects has an obvious value: the actors may thus speak their lines as home truths, the better to identify the betrayals, loss of freedom, resentments, and plotting with their own combined memory of present and pre-jail experiences. Moreover in a Q&A with the directors after this screening, they explained that each actor translated his own lines from standard Italian into his individual dialect, providing them with an intellectually stimulating activity that may bring out an urge to write. On the other hand, the various dialects can be distracting and would break up the unity of the original Shakespearean text. All of which reminds us that this is a novelty and a feat and not a work of art for general consumption, however fascinating it is to study jail performances, as we know from Beckett in prison decades ago.
Rehearsals — with the mood flare-ups that seem artificial — blend seamlessly into performance. But here is another place where the Tavianis have fudged and distorted. While it’s obvious from the opening and closing sequences that the play was performed on a stage surrounded by large columns before an audience who came in from outside, in the film sequences are staged in hallways and a courtyard of the prison. As Jay Weissberg rightly points out in his Berlin review for Variety, these sequences staged by the directors only for the film distort the desired sense that this is a prison, that the inmates live constantly in small cells, and that they’re only “free” in the director’s rehearsal space and the final on-stage performance. In this misleading context, as Weissberg says, a shot of part of the play artificially set up with the sky all around above (as it never can be in Rebibbia) “turns the cells into a theatrical construct” when the prisoners are shown being let into them one by one in a sequence that bookends the film.
It’s a shame that in the interests of evaluating the film fully as documentary material, one must focus so much on these various elisions and distortions. Caesar Must Die remains a theatrical-cinematic artifact of strong interest that can’t fail to move you at certain points when you watch the inmate-actors in action and observe their skill and their ability to harness “emotional memory” in the Strasberg sense. The language may not mesh and the faces may not always be right, but the energy and fluency of the performances of everyone in the cast are impressive. (It would have been nice to see more instances where someone fumbled or forgot lines or got pointers from the director.) I have to point out another significant tweaking of the situation not acknowledged in the body of the film: the actor who plays Brutus, Salvatore Striano, was released six years ago and brought back to act in the production.
According to those credits the impressive and well-cast Giovanni Arcuri, who plays Caesar, has written a book about “freedom in prison,” and the theme of inner vs. outer freedom is one the filmmakers seek to develop, though it would come through much better had they delved more deeply into the details of the play production process and been willing to move back and forth from slick performance to awkward reality. Instead it’s all slick performance, even the ostensible off-text scenes.
Weissberg points out that sometimes to the “sharp-eared” or keenly observant the dialects and the prisoners’ mafia connections give certain spoken lines an inappropriate or comic overtone, and he notes “distracting post-production dubbing” audible in the alteration of some speeches. On the other hand the fact that some of these men are murderers and have a violent past gives stabbing scenes a chilling double reality. The surging music by Vittorio’s son Giuliano Taviani is sometimes derivative or repetitions, but has a generally strong unifying effect, underlining the throbbing emotion and adding to the distinctive look and feel of the film.
Cesare deve moriere debuted at Berlin, as mentioned, where it received the Silver Bear award. It was screened for this review as part of the 20012 New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it is showing Sept. 29 and 30 and Oct. 1 and 8. It already has been or soon will be released in over a dozen countries; no US distributor yet (as of Sept 27, 2012).
Directors: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani
Stars: Cosimo Rega, Salvatore Striano, Giovanni Arcuri
Runtime: 76 min