Many films use the premise of actors putting on a play to drive their plots forward. In films like Jesus Christ Superstar or the painfully misguided Canadian film Lilies, it is a framing device used to provide the filmmaker some distance from his material. The theatrical productions in Shakespeare in Love and Moulin Rouge! are used to parallel and comment upon the action in the main plot. Caesar Must Die, the new film from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, adds an additional layer of meaning onto these familiar devices; the result is one of the most fascinating and entrancing cinematic experiences I’ve had this year.
At first, the film seems to present itself as a documentary. We see the tail end of a production of Julius Caesar, which could have been produced anywhere. As in Shakespeare’s day, the set is minimal, costumes more elaborate, and performances presentational but effective. The production receives a rousing reception from the audience, and the actors beam with pride at the job they have done. And then we see: they are prisoners. The principle cast members are led back into their cells one by one, and we watchers of the film begin to wonder at this strange production.
We flash back six months. The group of prisoners we just saw are gathered in a dull, unassuming room, and told that the prison will be putting on a production of Julius Caesar. The director describes it as about “a great Roman general that, after turning Rome in to a great and powerful city, gives in the temptation of becoming a tyrant, and for that reason is eliminated by his political partners.” That synopsis appears to resonate with a few of the prisoners gathered.
This leads into the audition scene: the prisoners enter one by one, and are told to provide simply their Christian name, surname, date and place of birth, father’s name, and residence. But, they must deliver this information each of two ways: “In the first, you are at a border post. You are leaving your wife who is over there on the platform. You want to say goodbye to her, to cry with her. But you are required to give us your particulars. The second is the same situation, only this time we force you to give us your particulars. The first time you’ll be crying and the second you’ll be pissed off.” As I sat there watching each prisoner, deliver such simple information in contrasting ways, I felt the film’s hooks dig into me, and I knew I was watching something special. Soon, the parts are cast, and rehearsals begin in the prison’s various spaces.
This material would be fascinating enough on its own, but the brothers Taviani one-up themselves. As we see scenes from the play acted out by the prison’s amateur troupe, the director slowly seems to disappear. The actors appear to be rehearsing scenes in their own time, away from supervision, until eventually, it seems the play itself has seeped into the prison, and possessed its occupants. We have stopped watching a documentary about prisoners rehearsing a production of Julius Caesar, and have begun watching a film of Julius Caesar set in a prison. Watching these levels of reality bleed into and dance around one another is nothing short of spellbinding. (It is worth noting that this movie is not a documentary—the actors on the screen however are actual prisoners who did perform the play at the prison depicted in the film.)
The most effective sequence is that of Caesar’s death and the aftermath. It is presented in the courtyard enclosed by the walls of the prison, and Brutus and Anthony deliver their dueling monologues to those still enclosed within their cells, looking at the spectacle from their barred windows, whom we hear but largely do not see. Prison guards watch on, seeming to understand that they are watching a rehearsal of some sort, but not wondering who is supervising the whole endeavor. It is one of the very best interpretations of the Bard I have ever seen; my description has not done it justice.
You don’t need to have much more than a passing familiarity with Julius Caesar to enjoy this stunning film; it only helps to know that it is unquestionably one of Shakespeare’s most political, perfectly dramatizing how effective oratory can turn the public’s opinion on a dime. Italy has chosen Caesar Must Die as its entry for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and I cannot tell you how very much I hope it makes the shortlist. Maybe receiving this year’s Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival will help its chances; though it was a controversial decision for the festival crowd, it was unquestionably the correct one, judging by the list of other entrants.
Caesar Must Die doesn’t have a US release date until 2013 so let me say this prematurely: Caesar Must Die is one of the best films of 2013. Mark your calendars. Here is a film you absolutely cannot afford to miss.
Bottom Line: A brilliant combination of Shakespeare, documentary, and theatre, Caesar Must Die is a riveting and bewitching experience.
For more information about this year’s foreign film submissions, be sure to check out Film Misery’s detailed webpage.