To understand why “Caesar Must Die” is more intense than you might expect, why it ranks among the most involving adaptations of Shakespeare ever put on screen, you have to know exactly what it is and how it came into being.
It started when the veteran Italian directors (and brothers) Paolo and Vittorio Taviani were persuaded to attend a live reading of cantos from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” presented by inmates serving life sentences inside the high-security section of Rome’s Rebibbia prison.
The Tavianis, whose best known films include “The Night of the Shooting Stars” and “Padre Padrone,” were mightily impressed by what they saw and approached Fabio Cavalli, the director of the prison group, about doing a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” that would be staged with the collaboration of the inmates and filmed throughout the prison.
“We chose ‘Julius Caesar,’ “ the Tavianis said in an extensive interview in Cineaste magazine, “because it is about tyranny, the homicide of a tyrant, about betrayal, friendship, treachery and conspiracy, and it is set in Rome, in Italy. These emotions correspond with the world from which the prisoners come.”
The film that resulted, though only 76 minutes long, is a stunning confirmation of the Tavianis’ instincts. “Caesar Must Die” shows us in the starkest possible terms the electric power of drama to move and touch not only audiences but also the actors who bring so much of themselves to their performances.
What we experience is not just the inevitable jolt of watching men who truly understand violence and conspiracy as they conspire to murder a man and then do the deed. It’s that to see “Caesar Must Die” is to feel in the largest possible sense that these inmate actors comprehend this play in their bones — the characters’ desperation becomes their desperation as well.