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The Taviani brothers' account of a prison production of Julius Caesar marks a profoundly moving return to form

Before the emergence of the Coens, the Farrellys, the Hugheses and the Wachowskis, there were the Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, born in Pisa in respectively 1931 and 1929, the sons of a lawyer jailed for his anti-fascist activities. Coming out of Italian neorealism and the French new wave, adapting works by Tolstoy and Pirandello and much influenced by Brecht, they emerged in the late 60s. Theirs was a humanist cinema that reached out socially and chronologically, from an aristocrat disillusioned with revolution in early 19th-century Lombardy to the idealistic inhabitants of a Tuscan village standing up against the Nazis in 1944.

The Tavianis' finest film perhaps is Padre Padrone, the true story of a boy escaping from hard-scrabble peasant life in present-day Sardinia to be educated during his military service on the mainland. The successful efforts of Roberto Rossellini to persuade his fellow jurors to give it the Palme d'Or at the 1977 Cannes festival shortened his life. Their more recent films have been rather softer in tone, and their reputation has faded. But Caesar Must Die, the Tavianis' first picture for more than six years, sees a major return to form. It won the Golden Bear at the 2012 Berlin festival from a jury presided over by Mike Leigh, a film-maker with whom they have a great affinity.

Caesar Must Die centres on a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar performed by inmates from the high-security wing at Rome's Rebibbia prison, all hard men serving long sentences for murder, drug dealing and offences connected with the mafia and Camorra. Such plays are regularly produced by outside professionals, most famously the Genoese actor and director Fabio Cavalli. After seeing an adaptation of Dante's Inferno, the Tavianis suggested a film version of Julius Caesar that they'd work on as writers and directors in collaboration with Cavalli. So while the movie appears to follow the production from conception to final performance before an audience from outside jail, it is something altogether more shaped than a fly-on-the-wall documentary. One thinks of Louis Malle's final film, Vanya on 42nd Street, which purports to be a read-through of André Gregory's New York production of the Chekhov play but leaves us wondering whether we've watched a complete, newly conceived work of art, a work-in-progress, a documentary or a combination of all these things.

There are plays-within-plays in Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. The whole of The Taming of the Shrew is a play-within-a-play performed for the drunken tinker Christopher Sly, though this framing device is often dropped. This production of Shakespeare's play framed by a jail in the Tavianis' Julius Caesar recalls Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, in which the Marquis de Sade directs a play performed by asylum inmates. It also resembles films such as Jules Dassin's He Who Must Die, where actors' lives are transformed by taking on the identities of the characters they play. (In the Dassin movie they're working-class Greeks in a Passion play produced during the Turkish occupation.)

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The movie begins and ends with the last moments of Julius Caesar, performed on a stage in rough costumes and in colour. In between, it's shot in harsh black-and-white, which the Tavianis actually believe is less realistic than colour. We see the striking auditions where each would-be actor gives his name, age and address straight to camera twice, first as if he was speaking to customs officers, then as if saying farewell to his family. This is followed by the principal actors discovering their characters with the director, who insists on them sticking to their regional accents. In one arresting moment a Camorra strong-arm man says "Naples" instead of "Rome", and explains: "It seems as if this Shakespeare was walking the streets of my own city." In another, the imposing Caesar, who looks like (and probably is) a mafia capo, turns on Decius, the conspirator dispatched to bring him to the Senate, as if he were a genuine traitor luring him to his death. Briefly they step outside the rehearsal cell ready for a fight. This is a pared-down production in which the roles of Calphurnia and Portia have been dropped, and there's a touching (if clearly staged) moment when one of the actors runs a hand over a seat in the auditorium and says to himself: "Maybe a woman will sit on it."

The early parts of the play are shown in rehearsal. But the scenes leading up to the assassination are performed peripatetically all over the cell block. The requiems spoken over Caesar's corpse take place in the exercise yard with prisoners at the surrounding windows acting as the crowd. This is electrifying stuff. At this point the prison life is inseparable from the play, and the actors merge their roles with their careers as gangsters. When Mark Antony repeatedly speaks about "men of honour", he talks the language of the mob.

Freedom and incarceration are popular images for the experience of life. "Denmark's a prison" is something we all understand. But the notion works both figuratively and literally in Caesar Must Die, and it is profoundly moving. The convicts are liberated by appearing in the play. They're released into the world of art, they live an alternative life. This is what happened to the lifer Rick Cluchey when he appeared in a now legendary production of Waiting for Godot in San Quentin, an experience that inspired John Hancock's film Weeds starring Nick Nolte as a criminal based on Cluchey. We see the cast of Italian prisoners share the excitement of the audience at the end. But after the performance the actors are led away one by one to their cells and locked away. This is devastating, and one will not easily forget the line spoken by the convict we've seen playing Cassius: "Since I have discovered art, this cell has turned into a prison."

Philip French

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source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/mar/03/caesar-must-die-review-philip-french


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