Caesar Must Die (or to give it its native moniker Cesare deve morire) is an Italian documentary drama set inside a maximum security prison in which a group of convicted felons stage a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and is nearly completely shot in black and white. That sentence alone has probably whittled down my modest readership by a significant percentage. Hardly the stuff of mass-consumed 2-for-1 Orange Wednesdays.
Directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, the film takes the disparate pieces of film genre staples – the documentary, the narrative arc of a ‘performance’ film and a Shakespeare re-enactment – and willfully stirs them together, blurring the lines of each one. It begins as a straight documentary, using a flashback framing device and simple screen text to set-up the premise, but no sooner have we been introduced to the lead performers (with the briefest summation of their crimes) than we are thrown into the main body of the film, in which the play is rehearsed in sequences that betray far more grace and thought than fly on the wall film making would allow.
The actors pace rehearsal rooms and their own cells with their folded up manuscripts, reading their lines, but they also roam deserted corridors and desolate exercise yards. At times it seems as though the prison itself is merely an elaborate set, out of use and abandoned to a troupe of lost souls destined to recite these lines in different permutations. Guards and other inmates are only fleetingly seen, and even when they are they are drawn into the drama, commenting on it, watching the scenes unfold, but not as themselves. It is as if they are an audience within Shakespeare’s play, just as the lines between character and actor smudge like charcoal. These sequences move through the play in chronological order, presenting us the tale of Julius Caesar, but relocating it to a brutal, grimly beautiful setting.
There are pros and cons to all of this. In its favour, Caesar Must Die celebrates the passion in men – regardless of their background or circumstances – to transcend their lot and lose themselves in artistic expression. There are some fine actors in this company, and little or no mention is made of their crimes. Can a murderer not create something beautiful? We are provoked to question how much we ought to care for their past deeds in light of their present passions. Secondly, by journeying through Shakespeare’s play as the film progresses, and by casting its rehearsals in such a conspicuously artificial manner, Caesar Must Die effectively works as a retelling of the story; easy to imagine as a behind-bars power-struggle. In a very real way, this movie is not-too-far-removed from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Different aesthetic, same idea.
So it all feels a little like someone’s fevered dream, as opposed to some snapshot of something really extraordinary happening in the bleakest of settings. Devoid of distractions, the prisoners are swallowed by their characters whole, so that we don’t know the men behind Brutus or Anthony. The documentary aspect evaporates, leaving an oppressively somber aura of importance over what is, essentially, an effective Shakespeare reenactment under unusual circumstances. It’s all very solemn and earnest, and at times it is undeniably engrossing. But where is the truth?
It’s there fleetingly whenever the bubble of artifice is burst. Near the beginning – and the film’s out-and-out highlight – is a montage of auditions in which the hopeful inmates are asked to perform the same scene in both sadness and anger. Watching them all flip commendably between the two in such unique ways suggests far more of the human beings behind the performances than any of the subsequent ‘rehearsals’.
You have to wait for the film’s finale for this sense of power to be rekindled. When the performance is over and the men take their curtain call in front of a standing ovation, the real world is finally allowed back into the movie, and a sense of palpable achievement and tangible sadness sweeps in. It is sustained as the men are shown back to their cells, divided up, imprisoned by the mundane once again.
You might argue that this makes Caesar Must Die successful. If we the audience have been jolted back to reality, then the film must have artfully managed to remove us from it, mirroring the absorbing effect of losing yourself in a performance. We’ve journeyed with these men, who have found brief freedom in the arts. But I’m left wondering, who were these men possessed by Shakespeare? Aside from a sense that they have accomplished something against the odds for the happenstance of their incarceration, they begin and end in frustrating anonymity.
The Tavianis’ film feels oddly compromised then, succeeding in some ways, but not others. As a documentary, it’s untrustworthy. As a Shakespeare adaptation, it’s a starkly shot curio. As a putting-on-a-show drama, it evokes the soporific spirit of Herzog at his dreamiest. As a whole? It’s problematically less than the sum of its parts.