Despite the obvious similarities in the titles, Caesar Must Die is not the long awaited (for some people anyway) sequel to Jet Li's action flick Romeo Must Die. It is actually the latest film from veteran Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, both now in their eighties. With this film, they won the prestigious Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival this year.
Caesar Must Die centres around a theatrical production of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, taking audiences on a journey from the auditions to the rehearsals to the actual performance on stage. The unusual thing is that the cast does not consist of professional actors, but prisoners at the high security wing of the Rebibbia Prison in Rome. These prisoners are dangerous criminals convicted of murder, drug trafficking, gang-related and other crimes, and this certainly adds a layer of complexity to the film. The connection between life and art is a theme that runs throughout the film, and it is through art that the prisoners, many of whom are faced with life imprisonment, could find new meanings to their lives.
As you watch the film, one question that seems to come up repeatedly is whether this is a documentary with real footages, or a drama based on a true story. In the end, it becomes apparent that the answer does not matter, and the clever and deliberate blurring of the line between reality and drama is what makes the film so engrossing. The prisoners learn about their own lives and come to remember what things they have really missed out on after spending years in prison. They also rediscover the sense of achievement and feeling of being appreciated that keep most of us going. One thing that would have been interesting to explore in more detail is how the relationships between the prisoners change and develop as they work together on the production.
As in Shakespeare's other tragedies, the themes of power, loyalty, betrayal, honor and revenge come through strongly in the play and consequently in the film. These themes are no doubt ones that the prisoners could relate to, which may help explain why these amateur actors can be trained in a relatively short period of time to give such powerful performances. Choosing to make Julius Caesar is therefore a well-made decision, but any of the Shakespearean tragedies (especially the four 'great tragedies' - Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth) would probably have worked just as well. The other reason for the impressive performances may be that, as seen in the audition reels, these people all have strong desires and abilities to express themselves.
Like some of the most memorable films of the past few years, such as the Oscar-winning The Artist and last year's Sydney Film Festival film Black & White & Sex, Caesar Must Die is almost entirely a black and white film. The cinematography by Simone Zampagni is exquisite. One particular visually striking sequence involves the prisoners / actors rehearsing the final scenes of the play in the open field of the prison with guards and fellow prisoners watching from afar. At those particular plot points where the crowd is to react, all the prisoner audiences are seen to yell through their prison windows with incredible emotions. The remarkably powerful effect that results is something that would be hard to reproduce in any theatrical productions. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have therefore created a film about the production of a play that ends up more strongly affecting than the play itself, and that is very much an achievement.
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