Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
The brothers Vittorio, right, and Paolo Taviani have been making films together for nearly 60 years. They set their latest, “Caesar Must Die” in a maximum-security prison in Rome.
Nearly 40 years ago the brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani wrote and directed “Allonsanfan,” starring Marcello Mastroianni as a revolutionary in the Napoleonic era. After its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival Mr. Mastroianni met with reporters, and when they asked him about the unusual experience of working with two directors on the same film, he feigned surprise. “Were they two?” he asked.
The Tavianis are now in their 80s, but at an age when most of their contemporaries have retired they continue making films, and in seamless unity. Their latest effort, “Caesar Must Die,” which opens on Wednesday, is one of their most artistically ambitious productions: a fictional feature with elements of a documentary and the theater, about the staging of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in a maximum-security prison in Rome.
“What kind of film is this?” Vittorio Taviani, 83, asked rhetorically during an interview last fall, when “Caesar Must Die” was shown at the New York Film Festival. “It’s a true film, a fiction film in which the reality of the prison is physically palpable.” Paolo Taviani, 81, completed the thought: “The energy of this film is born of pain, you see the walls and the bars before you, the authentic pain of the people living inside the prison.”
The Tavianis, who have written or directed 22 films together, are not the only pair of siblings making films together of course. In Europe there are also the Dardenne brothers of Belgium, while the United States has the Coens, the Wachowskis, the Farrellys and the Hugheses. But the Tavianis have been doing it longer than anyone else — since 1954 — and have developed a working method that minimizes friction by alternating the direction of individual scenes.
“The crew that knows us asks, ‘Who’s the first today?’ ” Paolo explained. “And while that person is at the helm the crew has to answer only to the director in charge at that moment. They can’t go ask Paolo something they want to do. When it’s finished, I come and look at the video.”
Vittorio continued: “The other is at the monitor, watching the video. We have a very acute nonverbal, telepathic communication. If the one at the monitor starts to scratch his head, the other understands. So we have a silent meeting, we correct it, and then we go off again.”
Writing scripts works in much the same fashion. They live within walking distance of each other in Rome, so they will often meet at a park and discuss whatever their current project happens to be while walking their dogs together and then go to one or the other’s house and get down to work, seated across from each other at a table.
For “Caesar Must Die” the brothers brought in a collaborator, Fabio Cavalli, to help distill and shape the Shakespearean text into a screenplay. In a bit of meta playfulness Mr. Cavalli, who directs a theater troupe at Rebibbia prison in Rome, was cast as the director of the play within the movie.
“The themes of guilt and friendship, betrayal and conspiracy are at the center of Shakespeare’s play, and also at the center of the life experience of the actors,” many of whom are serving terms for Mafia- or Camorra-related crimes, Mr. Cavalli said. “So many actors and directors had come to Rebibbia,” he continued, but until the Tavianis came along, “nobody understood that here was an opportunity to make a movie about this extraordinary environment so full of art, the hope of freedom, and consciousness.”
“Caesar Must Die” was born when a journalist friend of the Tavianis urged them to visit a performance by the Rebibbia troupe. They were reluctant at first. “We thought, oh, it’s going to be the same old thing,” Paolo said. But once they saw the prisoners performing Dante and Pirandello, they changed their minds.
“We immediately had this sense that this was a great idea come down to us from the heavens,” Vittorio said. “These compatriots of ours are tragic figures, really. They know crime and conspiracy, so let’s let them tell the tragedy of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, which is an Italian story, a Roman story that’s part of the collective imagination of the Italian people.”
The Tavianis have a long history of adapting works from the Western literary canon. Since releasing the semi-autobiographical “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” an international hit 30 years ago, they have twice made films drawing from Pirandello (“Kaos” and “You Laugh”) and Tolstoy (“Night Sun” and “Resurrection”) and also adapted Goethe’s “Elective Affinities” for the screen. In addition they made a mini-series for Italian television, “Luisa Sanfelice,” based on a novel by Alexandre Dumas.