By Kenneth Turan
Los Angeles Times
---- — 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.
The inmates and the Tavianis did not put on the entire play; what we see are the scenes involving the planning for Caesar’s death, the deed itself and the dramatic aftermath. Color footage of the actual production staged in the prison opens and closes the film, but the heart of “Caesar Must Die,” shot in stark black and white, is the play’s rehearsal period.
We first meet the actors during the audition process when, following a plan the Tavianis have used for years, each man is asked to create a moment when they are sad and another one when they are angry. To see how artfully these men manage this is to realize how essential acting can be for a life outside the law, to be reminded that to be a criminal is to be first and foremost a deceiver.
We are also struck, not for the last time, by the dramatic personalities and powerful faces these men have acquired. Whatever the cause, the actors chosen have the kind of real presence that can’t be manufactured on demand.
It’s only once the men are chosen that “Caesar Must Die” tells us, via type on screen, what their names are and why they are in a maximum-security prison. Murder and drug smuggling are the most frequent crimes, and some of these men, members of organizations like the Mafia and the Camorra, have the extreme, almost poetic sentence of “life meaning life.”
As the rehearsal period increases in intensity, it’s mesmerizing to see the ways the actors make Shakespeare’s situations their own, initially by speaking the lines not in standard Italian but their own particular regional dialects.
The actors also start to see parallels between the play’s situations and their own lives and even end up almost coming to blows because some of the circumstances remind them of bad blood in their own lives.
Though it would be comforting to concentrate on the notion that being able to act has enlarged these men’s lives, the Tavianis, now in their 80s, won’t allow us that easy consolation.
Perhaps the most memorable line in “Caesar Must Die” comes when the prisoner who plays Cassius looks at the camera and simply says, “Since I got to know art, the cell has become a prison.”