Yesterday I went to see the film Caesar Must Die, by Paolo and Vittorio Taviana. Set in a maximum security prison outside Rome called Rebibbia, which famously houses some of the top bosses of the Italian mafia, the film documents a scorching production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by a group of convicts. The film is a chilling meditation on mens’ capacities for violence.
The film is stripped down to bare essentials. We see a snippet of the final production at the outset, but the film quickly segues back to try outs for the play, in which potential actors are asked to identify themselves first as if they are at a border crossing, leaving behind their wives and children, and second as if they are being harshly interrogated. Following this introductory casting, rehearsals unfold, although the border separating rehearsals, the play itself, and the lives of the convicts is consistently blurred.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar offers a harsh lesson about the dramatic danger of unleashing violence, with the cascade of vendettas and military clashes that follow Caesar’s assassination completely undermining Brutus’s idealistic vision in murdering his beloved Caesar.
The power of Caesar Must Die lies in the gravity that comes from employing men who have led violent lives as actors in Shakespeare’s depiction of a politically motivated assassination and the bloodletting that follows. The Taviani brothers’ film hammers home this message by showing us that men such as the actor-convicts of Rebibbia prison are ineluctibly scarred by the violent acts they have committed. The shadows that pass over these actors at moments in the production remind us as viewers that violence does not die, but lives on in these men, scarring their memories, interrupting their voices, and, of course, drastically impoverishing their present-day lives.
At the outset and conclusion of Caesar Must Die, we watch as each of the men whom we come to know in the course of the film is locked into his tiny cell. These somber moments underline the grim toll of violence, but also suggest the importance of art in opening up – however fleetingly – wider vistas of human experience and emotion to the men who enact Shakespeare’s play. A similar unsettling message can be found in This American Life‘s moving portrait of a jailhouse production of the final act of Hamlet. However great the violence committed in the past by such men, these two documentaries suggest, the greater violence lies in their societies’ decision to consign them to a living death behind bars.