By Raj Ranade
12:55 PM EST, February 26, 2013
Caesar Must Die
Directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani
Opens March 1, at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org
One of the ironies of acting and the movies is that an actor's skill eventually backfires against him in a certain way. The great actors, the ones who are best at conveying dramatic truth, are usually rewarded for their excellence, through Oscars or critical recognition or fan worship. Suddenly, they have a reputation, a brand (Esteemed Actor™), which is something their audiences inevitably attach to their every future performance.
Denzel Washington is still incredible as the alcoholic pilot in Flight, but he is also Denzel Washington, and no matter how hard he tries to lose himself in a character, he will never fully transcend his essential Denzel-itude. A smart director is cognizant of these brands and uses them to his advantage — part of why Jimmy Stewart is so effective as the unlikely voyeur and obsessive in Hitchcock's Rear Window or Vertigo is because Alfred Hitchcock played off his brand as all-American nice guy. But a director can never fully get around that brand — they have to work with it or find someone lesser known.
Or they can go a third way — casting a non-professional and taking advantage of another kind of truth. Caesar Must Die, the new film from the great Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Padre Padrone, Kaos), shows early on what can be problematic about this approach. In an early scene, when we see non-professionals auditioning for a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, we're aware that they're not amazing actors in the traditional sense. Asked to recite biographical facts first in an angry tone and then in a mournful one, they represent the former primarily through volume and the latter through overwrought sniveling.
But sometimes their real-life value is worth the trade-off. In this case, that production is a real-life one being held in Rome's maximum-security Rebibbia prison, and the potential cast members are all actual inmates. Maybe they can't sell dramatic truth the way Denzel could, but there's documentary truth in those once-broken noses and pockmarked faces, which we can intuit even before the Tavianis reveal their specific crimes — which include murder, drug trafficking, and assorted mafia-linked felonies — after the audition.
And with the right material, this highlighting of a different reality can really pay off. Caesar seems to be a documentary at first, with theater director Fabio Cavalli finding his Caesar (Giovanni Arcuri) and Brutus (Salvatore Striano) and coaching his cast. But it soon becomes clear that these real inmates are in fact playing fictional versions of themselves preparing for their real performance (which, for added meta-kicks, is a play in English about real Romans that's been translated and performed by Italians). When the rehearsals begin, the Tavianis shoot them as if they're adapting the play themselves, with gorgeous, precise compositions captured in Raging Bull high-contrast blacks and whites.
It's a strikingly effective take on the play, even condensed to less than 76 minutes from its standard 2.5 hour running time. The Tavianis cut to the scheming essence of the source material by asking their actors to mold the text into something more colloquial and immediate (each convict is told to deliver his lines in the dialect of his native city), and Brutus' doomed struggle in the name of freedom takes on a powerful new resonance.
Along the way, the directors also dramatize the process of troubled souls finding meaningful connections to their own lives in timeless material. Admittedly, they sometimes dramatize this with all the subtlety of a shiv between the ribs ("It's as though this Shakespeare lived on the streets of my city!" exclaims one convict). But there's also something more complex going on — as we see the actors flip between their roles as prisoners and ancient Romans, it seems like the farther they get from their own lives, the more comfortable (and convincing) they seem to be.
That art can serve as a liberating, even redemptive mental escape for these physically confined men may not come as a surprise. But there's another side to that liberation. This film about the power of art begins with a flash-forward to Brutus impaling himself on a sword; it ends with a prisoner's declaration to the camera that "Since I became acquainted with art, this cell turned into a prison." Artistic enlightenment gives a lot to these men, but it also makes even clearer to them what they've lost.
The Tavianis even reflect this idea in the film's aesthetic. In the early rehearsals, shafts of light sneak into the dark prison halls through narrow windows. By the play's climax, the actors standing outside in the prison yard are fully illuminated — and so are the ornate fences surrounding them. It's an idea that extends beyond literal prisons — beautiful extremes of experience, the directors suggest, can have a way of dulling even further the everyday.
I don't want to oversell Caesar Must Die — it's a modest film by design with its share of clunky moments. (There was an understandable outcry when the film took home top prize at last year's Berlin film festival, over films like Ursula Meier's Sister and Christian Petzold's spectacular Barbara). But it's the rare film that can pack this many ideas — about the redemptive power of drama, the nature of performance, and the ways the real and the fictional can intertwine — into such a compact running time. It works on you the way the play does on those prisoners — it's fleeting, but it can change the way you look at the world if you let it.
Copyright © 2014, WTXX-TV