Monday, February 25, 2013

Caesar Must Die: Shakespeare Behind Bars

Giovanni Arcuri (centre) and members of the cast, in a scene from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Caesar Must Die

“That was amazing,” the woman next to me at the New York Film Festival screening of Caesar Must Die last fall said to me as the lights came up. The new film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani is the kind of experience that makes speaking acquaintances out of strangers. It was shot in Italy’s Rebibbia Prison, a maximum-security facility that houses mostly Mafiosi and drug traffickers, some of whom have been sentenced to “life meaning life,” a colorfully insistent Italian idiom meaning life without parole. At Rebibbia, Fabio Cavalli conducts a theatrical workshop that produces classic plays performed by prisoners, who audition just as they would in any other theatre. The show the Tavianis depict is Julius Caesar, in a free-form translation that Cavalli coaches his actors to read in their own regional accents. But Caesar Must Die isn’t exactly a documentary. The Tavianis apply their trademark expressionism: we hear the thoughts of the prisoners as they lie on their cots, sometimes in that overlapping concatenation we associate with the brothers’ masterpieces, Padre Padrone and The Night of the Shooting Stars, and Simone Zampagni has lit the film, which is mostly in black and white, expressionistically. Only a few sequences are shot in the rehearsal hall or in performance. (We see only the last few scenes and the curtain call of the actual performance: shot in color, they bookend the picture.) Mostly the actors perform in the corridors of the prison, in the yard or in other common spaces, or else in their own cells, so the reality of the prisoners’ lives bleeds into Shakespeare’s narrative – which is, of course, about violence and power, betrayal and vengeance, ideas that, as we don’t need to be told, have peculiar resonance for these men. Sometimes they’re clearly prisoners acting roles and commenting on their meaning, as when Salvatore (Sasà) Striano, playing Brutus, explains to his cellmates what happened in Rome after Caesar’s death and one of them, a Nigerian, relates it to his own country’s history. At other times they seem indistinguishable from the characters they’re portraying, partly because there’s no stylistic discrepancy between Shakespeare’s scenes and the private (and clearly scripted) exchanges among the prisoners. The movie is simultaneously expressionistic and Pirandellian.

Directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, in Rebibbia Prison
The men have remarkable faces and powerful, expressive bodies. Giovanni Arcuri, who plays Caesar, has a massive head on massive shoulders; Cosimo Rega, the bearded Cassius, has wonderful, deep-set eyes and silvery hair; and the circles under Striano’s eyes seem to have been carved there by a sculptor. Some magical combination of Shakespeare’s text and Cavalli’s and the Tavianis’ work with the men releases a level of emotionalism in them that you aren’t quite prepared for, even though it’s perfectly consistent with the kind of acting we’ve seen in the great Taviani movies. They throw themselves into their roles as if they were performing for their freedom, and in a sense they are, since the process of wrestling with these characters transcends the bars of their prison cells. The most devastating scene comes early on when, after the triumphant reception of the performance, we see each of the leading men returned to his cell and the door locked behind him; the Tavianis expand on this moment at the end, when Arcuri passes into his cell with head bowed and Rega explains, “Since I came to find art, this cell has become a prison.” But though the movie is inescapably an exploration of art as liberation, here where the men’s criminal lives have placed them in extremis, it’s equally about finding great art in unexpected places and about the capacity of men who have been ostracized from their culture to mine it, and mine the intensity of their experience, to produce art. And of course it’s also about the acting process – the way in which actors discover their roles by digging inside themselves and vice-versa. Striano, who is the best Brutus I’ve ever seen, and Rega are especially poignant examples of that process. (Striano, we are moved to discover during the end credits, was pardoned and has become a professional actor, while both Rega and Arcuri went on to write books in prison.)

The Tavianis keep crossing the line between the prisoners’ lives and their characters. A prisoner who isn’t in the play, passing Striano in the corridor, comments to his companions that the role has gone to his head; a few moments later, Striano stops in the middle of the conspiracy scene because he’s suddenly overwhelmed by the memory of a friend from his criminal days and hears him repeating Brutus’s lines. The man who warns Caesar about the conspirators rehearses his speech, both like an actor rehearsing his lines and like a citizen running his speech through his head out of nervousness at speaking to the great man. When Brutus stabs Caesar in this Julius Caesar, it’s a real Mafia-style assassination: Brutus grips Caesar to him as the knife goes in. And the Tavianis cross another line, too – the one between theatre and film. The actors are costumed as if for a stage play, and the props are familiarly theatrical, yet the tent scene is shot like a scene in a movie, and we hear the voice of Caesar’s ghost in voice-over as he comes up behind Brutus on the eve of the battle. You think inevitably of Vanya on 42nd Street, though the Tavianis’ experiment seems as if it couldn’t be farther from the one André Gregory and Louis Malle performed with professional actors on the stage of Manhattan’s crumbling old New Amsterdam Theatre. The Tavianis are now eighty-two and eighty-four, but they’re still the men who thrilled world audiences three and a half decades ago when Padre Padrone made cinema history by capturing both the Palme d’Or and the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Caesar Must Die is a major work by the movies’ greatest living filmmakers.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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