“Caesar Must Die,” the concluding feature in this year’s third annual Italian Film Festival USA at the University of Memphis, is bookended with footage from an unusual performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Julius Caesar.”
When the stage play is over, the audience files out of the auditorium and heads for home. The actors, meanwhile, form a more orderly procession and move toward a less cheery destination: the high-security wing of the Rebibbia Prison on the northeast edge of Rome.
Winner last year of the top prize, the Golden Bear, at one of the world’s most prestigious film events, the Berlin International Film Festival, “Caesar Must Die” is the latest feature from octogenarian Italian brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, who have made movies together for almost 60 years. The film screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the University Center Theatre on the U of M campus. Admission is free, and attendees are invited to remain after the screening for refreshments and a discussion of the movie.
“Caesar Must Die” probably is the most significant feature yet to screen in Memphis at the relatively new Italian Film Festival, a traveling program organized by the Italian Film Festival of St. Louis and the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago. Intended to give U.S. exposure to worthwhile recent Italian films that otherwise might not receive public bookings, the three-film mini-festival is coordinated locally by Cosetta Gaudenzi, associate professor of Italian at the U of M, with the support of the Memphis chapter of UNICO. (This year’s other movies, “One Day More,” a romantic comedy, and “The Human Cargo,” a documentary, screened March 26 and 28.)
Like such other recent films as the megahit “Borat” and the microbudgeted “Open Five 2,” from Memphis’ Kentucker Audley, “Caesar Must Die” obscures the boundary between documentary and traditional narrative filmmaking. Such films remind us that almost all fiction movies are “documentary,” in that they preserve a record of actual people and places at specific moments in time, and that even nonfiction movies are filled with characters delivering performances for the camera.
“Caesar Must Die” was inspired by an actual “theatrical laboratory” at Rebibbia Prison, a program intended to help rehabilitate inmates through art via their participation in stage plays. Fabio Cavalli, the director of this effort, plays himself in the film; the rest of the featured cast consists of actual prisoners.
It was not Cavalli, however, but the Tavianis who conceived of a prison production of “Julius Caesar.” Perhaps still best known for “Padre Padrone,” which won the Palme d’Or at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, the filmmakers apparently were attracted to the idea of actual killers and gangsters enacting a classic, historic and quintessentially Italian story of conspiracy and murder at a place not too far from both the site of the actors’ crimes and the location where the Roman leader was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.
Although the bookend sequences are shot in color, most of the rest of “Caesar Must Die” is in black and white. This emphasizes the starkness of the prison location and the unforgiving geometry of its architecture, which seems oppressive even if Rebibbia is a relatively luxe facility. In addition, the “artistic” nature of black-and-white photography transforms close-ups into portraiture; the actors playing Caesar, Brutus, Mark Antony and the rest sometimes seem as solid and classical as the marble busts of antiquity.
In Italian with English subtitles, the movie is episodic, with most of its economical 76-minute running time devoted to various rehearsals or to the men’s discussion of the surprising relevance of the material. Stoked by Shakespeare’s words, real-life antagonisms and rivalries occasionally come to the fore. (Salvatore Striano, the inmate cast as Brutus, was a member of the Italian Mafia, the Camorra, and so presumably is acquainted with violent codes of so-called honor and their betrayal.) At one point, the play’s Romans chant “For freedom!” The slogan takes on added meaning considering the real-life status of the actors, who spend most of their time in cells, behind a pair of metal doors, one barred and one solid.
The Tavianis don’t let us know when the men’s on-screen behavior is impromptu or scripted, but even when scenes seem clearly contrived, they are believable. As Shakespeare’s play demonstrates, the emotions roused by a work of art can be as powerful and authentic as those stirred by life’s triumphs and catastrophes. Cast as Cassius, lifer Cosimo Rega (whose charges include murder), marvels that Shakespeare’s famous speeches will be performed “in kingdoms that are not yet born and in languages still to be invented.” This man, sentenced to spend 17 years of his life in Rebibbia, seems to take pride in the fact of his association with something seemingly immortal.
‘Caesar Must Die’
Not rated; contains adult themes.