A scene from “Caesar Must Die.”
It’s easy to imagine that the performers in “Caesar Must Die,” a riff on Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” are cut from coarser, more authentic material than that found in most productions. The movie, after all, is set in an Italian prison and cast almost entirely with real inmates. The prisoners’ rough faces and darting eyes, the crooked arc of one man’s nose and the unnervingly sly line of another’s smile, suggest so much (murder most foul, to borrow a line), as do the occasional shivery biographical asides, particularly about the mafia, that jostle alongside the play’s poetry. These men, surely, know about betrayal, vengeance and power, a knife in the gut and hands washed in blood.
In truth, “Caesar Must Die” could easily be set in a Wall Street brokerage firm, a Hollywood talent agency or a Mexican drug cartel. As it is, the veteran directors and brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani shot the story in Rebibbia Prison, outside of Rome, and used male inmates and several former convicts to play all the roles. Working from their sharply abridged, Italian-language adaptation (Fabio Cavalli has a “screenplay collaboration” credit), the Tavianis open the movie in the play’s final act with Brutus (an excellent Salvatore Striano) raising a sword in self-sacrifice. Brutus — one of the play’s villains and its supremely tragic figure — will soon ask an aide to hold the sword so that he can run into it (assisted suicide being one prerogative of his station), an act that closes the circle opened by Caesar’s murder.
The Tavianis, best known for films like “Padre Padrone” and “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” have their free way with Shakespeare, treating “Julius Caesar” more like a conceptual jumping-off point than like a sacrosanct text. Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, who memorably cries out in the night (“They murder Caesar!”) is missing, as is Brutus’ wife, Portia, and assorted friends, senators and tribunes. The Senate is gone, and so too the Forum and the battlefield. What remains are men: scheming, agonizing, murdering men. There’s an elemental, almost primitive quality to the Tavianis’ condensing that, at its most effective, dovetails with the prison’s severely circumscribed material reality, as if the high walls, barred windows and suffocating rooms were manifestations of the characters’ states of mind.
Shortly after the movie opens, the story folds back in time to when the production began to take shape six months earlier. The most vivid preliminaries are the auditions, which take place in a room as unadorned as an undressed set. Two men, their backs to the camera, sit at the edges of the frame and address the inmates, who stand in the middle facing the camera (and us). Each inmate briefly introduces himself and his life and then acts, either with comic overstatement or startling intensity, the same nondescript scene. It’s somewhat interesting to see these raw, presumably untutored actors throw themselves into their performances, though there’s nothing surprising about the disclosure that some denizens of the criminal world have a talent for dissembling.
Much of “Caesar Must Die” is in black and white, a striking visual choice for a drama that, at least in its unabridged form, turns on characters who, from scene to scene, word to deed, are so complexly shaded. (It was shot in high-definition video that has such fine detail that you can play connect the dots with the actors’ pores.) The Tavianis’ movie is necessarily less involved (it runs 76 minutes) than Shakespeare’s play, with most of their story given over to men rehearsing. Every so often, real life — or rather the approximation being played on camera — intrudes. Two prisoners bicker while rehearsing a scene, their private argument mirroring the dynamics in the drama. This insertion of nominal real life gives the movie a modest shiver, but such self-reflexivity feels more ritualistic than revelatory.
The inclusion of some backstage verisimilitude has its dividends, as in a brief, palpably lonely scene of an inmate making coffee in his cell. Again and again, though, the Tavianis seem to want you to infer something about the inmates from the lines they recite, as when Cassius (Cosimo Rega), while washing his hands in Caesar’s blood, states that the assassins’ scene will be repeated, a nod at past and future murders as well as at other less bloody performances. You can only guess what the lines mean to the inmates, who register as atmospheric blanks at best and brutal exotics at worst, even if the tale that they enact with such earnest vigor works because the original tragedy does. The play’s the thing, to borrow another line, far more than the jailhouse setting is, which is this movie’s great, unsurprising revelation.
Caesar Must Die
Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani; director of the theater scenes and screenplay collaboration by Fabio Cavalli; director of photography, Simone Zampagni; edited by Roberto Perpignani; music by Giuliano Taviani and Carmelo Travia; produced by Grazia Volpi; released by Adopt Films. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. In Italian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 16 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Cosimo Rega (Cassius), Salvatore Striano (Brutus), Giovanni Arcuri (Caesar), Antonio Frasca (Mark Antony), Juan Dario Bonetti (Decius), Vittorio Parrella (Casca), Rosario Majorana (Metellus), Vincenzo Gallo (Lucius), Francesco de Masi (Trebonius), Gennaro Solito (Cinna), Francesco Carusone (Fortuneteller), Fabio Rizzuto (Strato) and Maurilio Giaffreda (Ottavius).