Inmates at a high-security prison in Rome prepare for a public performance of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”
I have to admit I haven’t seen too many Shakespeare’s plays in my day but even if I did, this would probably stand as the most unique of all of them. That’s because it’s set in Italy’s Rebibbia Prison and performed by its inmates. Directing brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani was apparently inspired by a prison production of Dante’s Divine Comedy which prompted them to go back to that facility and work with its resident theater director Fabio Cavalli. Mr. Cavalli plays himself in the film and the performers in this Julius Caesar play are all convicts or former convicts [per NPR]
The film began with the conclusion of the play, which gets a standing ovation from the audience. Then it goes into flashback mode to several months earlier to show us how the play was constructed. The film switches from color to stark black and white, not sure why but perhaps to contrast that with the actual performance itself. The mood of the film is dark and unsettling, though the audition part is quite lively and at times hilarious. During the audition, we learn their names, where they’re from and the serious crimes that got them to this high security prison, which includes drug trafficking and even murder. The rest of the film capture the rehearsal process, which takes place in various parts of the prison—the corridors, cells, courtyard—as they’re being watched by the other inmates. At times during the rehearsal, one of them would ‘break’ out of character and reflect on his past.
The entire time I was watching this I kept pondering how the inmates must’ve been feeling. I was struck by the contrast of how liberating it was for them to be able to perform and express themselves, but yet they’re constantly reminded of their confined lives. I think the striking dichotomy is what makes this film inherently intriguing and it kept me engaged despite the rather slow pace. The finale is definitely a rousing one. The inmates are ecstatic and jubilant seeing how well-received their performance was and it felt so refreshingly real that we can’t help but being happy for them. Then comes the contrast that each and every single one of those performers must return to their cell. It’s heart-wrenching stuff.
I was struck by how good these inmates are as actors. Even during rehearsals, with the way the scenes are filmed, it’s hard to separate them from their characters. It’s said that the performers could use their own Italian dialects/accents for their own character, but since I don’t understand any Italian, I don’t really notice the difference. The Caesar assassination scene, which I’ve seen numerous times in TV shows and films, has a dramatic impact unlike any other. I think the actors playing Caesar, Brutus and Marc Antony stand out the most, but among the three, Salvatore Striano as Brutus is my favorite. I guess he’s the most experienced actor of the bunch as he has also starred in Gomorrah.
Caesar Must Die is certainly one of the most unique films I’ve seen, both in concept and execution. It’s definitely worth the hype and merits the Berlinale’s Golden Bear win.
4 out of 5 reels
Has anyone seen this film yet? If not, what are your thoughts of this concept?