Winner of the 2012 Golden Bear at Berlin, Caesar Must Die sees the now eighty-something Taviani Brothers slip behind bars to blur the boundaries between drama and documentary to give us a radical and poignant interpretation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Set behind the walls of Rome’s Rebibbia Prison’s High Security Unit, Caesar Must Die is a beautiful, transcendent piece of cinema that’s at once an examination of the themes that permeate Shakespeare’s play and a study of the transformative power of art. Having attended a reading of Dante’s The Divine Comedy performed by inmates of Rebibbia Prison’s Theatre Lab, the Tavianis approached the group’s director, Fabio Cavalli, and suggested collaborating on the group’s production of Julius Caesar.
Working with a cast made up predominately of inmates with ties to the Mafia and the Camorra (some of whom are lifers, all of whom are serving long sentences) for whom the play’s themes of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, treachery and assassination have special resonance, the Tavianis shoot, in stark black and white, the audition and intense rehearsal process as the actors work through the text to find the play before they stage it in the prison’s refurbished theatre, scenes shot in vibrant, eye-popping colour.
The film’s rogue’s gallery of actors are wonderful. As Caesar, burly convicted drug trafficker Giovanni Arcuri brings a swaggering, thuggish sense of entitlement to the role, Antonio Frasca’s Mark Antony is a robust force of retribution his fantastic performance of Caesar’s funeral oration, alone in the prison exercise yard, perhaps the film’s most stunning scene, while Salvatore Striano (now a professional actor on the outside) is a tortured, conflicted Brutus, lifer (and author) Cosimo Rega a commanding, honourable Cassius who poignantly comments: “Since I have discovered art, this cell has turned into a prison.”
Raw and powerful, Caesar Must Die is a fascinating, thrilling collision between soul-stirring art and harsh reality.