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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 6 FEBRUARY 2013 — Italy is so visually arresting, so perfectly photogenic, that a tourist can snap the shutter without looking at his camera and still come back with something compelling, whether the subject is urban or pastoral.  Little did we know that Italy’s visual dexterity extends to its jails.

The film Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire) by the brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, was shot entirely within Rebibbia Prison. Located in a suburb of Rome, the jail is best remembered as the residence of Mehmet Ali Agca after his attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. In the Taviani brothers’ movie, the cells, corridors, library, exercise yard and other utilitarian spaces, shot in black and white, are gritty but finely ordered.  In long views, it is a brutish walled city; within, it is a warren of sharp angles and hard shadows, a place where even the bars do not always run in straight lines, a place made for the unpredictable and even for the occasional intercession of an inexplicable beauty.

Salvatore Striano (Brutus) and Giovanni Arcuri (Julius Caesar)
in Caesar Must Die
Photo: Umberto Montiroli, Courtesy of Adopt Films

And that is what happens when Fabio Cavalli, a stage director, arrives to cast and direct an all-inmate production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for the prison’s theater. The first part of the production that is shown in the film is the death scene of Brutus, which, like the rest of the scenes of the staged performance, is presented not in black and white but in the muted colors of the 1970s American New Wave. (Here as then, the unsentimental color palate and deep shadows push away all notions of cinematic sweetness.)

The story moves back in time to the first casting call and then, almost seamlessly, into Shakespeare’s play itself. On the pretext that the prison theater is undergoing renovation prior to the staging, the play is shown during rehearsals, in proper scene order so that the movie audience can follow the play within the film. The conspirators meet and plot in narrow prison corridors, potentially unfriendly ears ever within reach. One scene goes so well, three guards, observing from just beyond like three Shakespearean clowns, debate among themselves whether to call it off because recreation time is over or to let the actors finish. In the best of the rehearsal scenes, Mark Anthony gives his eulogy over the body of Caesar in the concrete exercise yard; dozens of inmates form into the play’s ad hoc chorus, calling for vengeance from behind the bars stacked overhead.

Salvatore Striano (Brutus) and Giovanni Arcuri (Julius Caesar)
in Caesar Must Die
Photo: Umberto Montiroli, Courtesy of Adopt Films

If this were an American movie in the classic mode, there would be much drama among the inmate actors and some obvious parallels made between their harsh lives and those of their characters. Those are present here but in a way so understated, without formulaic resolution, that you have to watch carefully for when they appear. You are therefore left to imagine much that is not revealed about the lives of these men — all of whom are in the high-security wing of the lockup — typically for long sentences or even life, for mob-related crimes.

One of the easiest ways to ruin a work of art in any medium is to insist that it be slavishly real. The Shakespearean actors are really present or former prisoners, and they really put on a production of Julius Caesar for an audience of outsiders, but on the reality scale that runs from documentary to reality television, this film is closer to the latter in approach. In collaboration with Cavalli, the brothers wrote a script — which means that each inmate plays both his Shakespearean character and himself — but they allowed liberal improvisation to take hold. In key scenes, you sense that the prisoners obliged with words of their own. That comes through clearly in the English subtitles, but an important element cannot: each of the actors is encouraged to speak his lines in his regional dialect, and Italian dialects can be quite distinctive and dissimilar. You do get a hint of that from the subtitles because the lines of Shakespeare as translated from the play within the film are analogous to what Shakespeare wrote but not exactly the same. The liberties so taken with the play’s text make each actor’s experience more personal, but if you cannot speak Italian well enough to understand the regional dialects of Naples, Sicily and Apulia — to say nothing of the semi-Dutch of the colorful Vittorio Parella (Casca), an older prisoner who had lived in Amsterdam — you are left to guess exactly how or why that is the case.

Inmates of Rome’s maximum security Rebibbia prison in Caesar Must Die
Photo: Umberto Montiroli, Courtesy of Adopt

Another liberty comes with the compelling and relatively young actor who plays Brutus, Salvatore Striano, a man with a hard-edged face and a piercing, utterly believable air of purpose and destiny. Having learned his craft from Cavalli while incarcerated at Rebibbia, he earned a pardon in 2006, after serving almost half of a nearly fifteen-year sentence, and became a professional actor. In the film, he plays himself in his former role as a prisoner who appears in plays. At the end of the film, we learn that two of the other actors, Cosimo Rega (Cassius) and Giovanni Arcuri (Caesar) have since left the prison — and written books.

Salvatore Striano (Brutus) and inmates of Rome’s maximum security
Rebibbia prison in Caesar Must Die
Photo: Umberto Montiroli, Courtesy of Adopt Films

A play about a great Roman who is brought down in the name of law and justice, performed just outside Rome by men confined there by law, clearly touches the hearts of the actors, and if the filmmakers want to sell that part as truly real, we are prepared to believe them. Unlike other theatrical amateurs, these incarcerated men have nothing else that is as enriching in their lives to distract them from their performances, and you can believe that they give it their all.

Twice during the film, we watch as actors who play principal roles are taken individually to their cells. Each stands with head bowed as first the outer steel door and then the barred door behind it is opened. The actor / prisoner, moves wordlessly within and the doors are shut him in. On the second occasion, shown after the play is performed and the theater audience and the company have exchanged applause and cheers, we join Cosimo Rega as he stands alone in his cell. He says, "Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison."  Then he pours himself a cup of coffee.

'Caesar Must Die' won the Golden Bear at the 62nd Annual Berlin International Film Festival. It opens in select theatres in the United States on 6 February 2013.


Caesar Must Die  Italy, 2011, 76 min.
In Italian with English Subtitles. 
Directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. Screenplay by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani.
Screenplay Collaboration:  Fabio Cavalli.
Produced by Grazia Volpi. Director of Photography:  Simone Zampagni. Sound:  Benito Alchimede and Brando Mosca.
Theater Director: Fabio Cavalli. 
Music:  Giuliano Taviani and Carmelo Travia. 
A Kaos Cinematografica srl production

With Cosimo Rega, Salvatore Striano, Giovanni Arcuri, Antonio Frasca, Juan Dario Bonetti, Vittorio Parrella, Rosario Majorana, Vincenzo Gallo, Francesco De Masi, Gennaro Solito, Francesco Carusone, Fabio Rizzuto and Maurilio Giaffreda.
An Adopt Films Release.

Headline image: Giovanni Arcuri and Juan Dario Bonetti in Caesar Must Die
Photo: Umberto Montiroli, Courtesy of Adopt Films

A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, Alan Behr is an attorney in New York City practicing art law.  He last wrote on the Rolling Stones 50 & Counting Tour for Culturekiosque.

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