Mr East Goes To The Movies 2013: Caeser Must Die

by George_East on March 31, 2013

At the 2012 Berlin Film Festival the hotly tipped favourite for the competition’s top prize and the third most prestigious award in the film festival calendar, The Golden Bear, was Christian Petzold’s Barbara.  Instead the Mike Leigh-chaired jury surprised everyone by choosing this film which had barely registered during the course of the festival itself.

Directed by the veteran Taviani Brothers, the film follows a group of (real) hardened prisoners at high security prison in Rome as they audition for, rehearse and perform Shakespeare’s Julius Caeser.

Paolo and Vittorio Taviani are both over 80 years old and have been big figures in European arthouse cinema since the 1960s.  In particular Padre Padrone (1977) and The Night of San Lorenzo (1982) are viewed critically as two of the greatest films of what was a relatively poor time for international cinema.   Their cinema is humanist, concentrating on the dispossessed and the poor.   It is very much in the neo-realist tradition established by Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio Da Sica in the light of Italy’s experience in the Second World War, marked by location shooting, amateurs in the main roles and unfussy direction.    I have to confess though I’ve read a fair amount about their cinema, this is the first of their films I have seen.

It is a remarkable work.   Films of the staging of plays often fall a little flat.  They are neither one thing or the other.  They do not have the immediacy of live actors but do not have the freedom that cinema has.  Louis Malle’s last film, Vanya on 42nd Street comes to mind.   Caeser Must Die does not fall into this trap.

The prison, Rebebbia, has amongst its inmates some of the hardest of Mafioso prisoners.  Many are serving very lengthy prison sentences, as we discover at the beginning in which Dirty Dozen-like the leading players are introduced line up fashion, with their name, crimes for which they have been convicted and sentences on the screen.

Each year under the direction of Fabio Cavilli the Rebebbia puts on one play.  From the opening sequence in which this year’s production is announced to the gathered prisoners, competition for parts in the play is fierce.   We see the auditions as each of the prisoners has to play the leaving of a loved one at a border post first showing devastation and then anger.    So far, so stagey.

But it is once the film moves into the rehearsals of the play that it becomes something rather special.  The Julius Caeser, Giovanni Arcuri, is every bit the Mafioso boss, 50 something, rotund, a man of few words but piercing gaze, someone you really do not want to be on the wrong side of.   In the rehearsal of one scene between Caeser and Casco, in which Casco (Vittorio Parrella) is seeking to persuade Caeser that he should go to the Senate (and thereby to the trap waiting for him), the underlying prison tensions between Arcuri and  Parrella bubble to the surface and the two leave the rehearsal room to resolve their difference outside (as guards look on).

Brutus, Salvatore Striano, is hyper-active, sweaty, nervous, full of guilt for what he is about to do.  He paces his cell rehearsing and rehearsing, getting under the skin of a man who betrays his closest friend.

Cassio, played by a  Camorra member doing a whole life sentence, Cosima Rega, is older, more considered but equally intense – there is an amazing sequence in which he fluffs a line – replacing the reference to the plotting in Rome, with his home city of Naples.

And this is surely the point.  The thing that makes the film so powerful.  Julius Caeser, a play about politics, power and betrayal could be a play about organised crime.  The premium on loyalty, the price of betrayal – all of this is writ large on the faces of the prisoners.  They understand fully how betrayal is dealt with.  It is not a light matter, or a question of historical representation – it is the life they live as part of their criminal organisations.

The film uses various parts of the prison as rehearsal spaces – the cells, the corridors, the yard, escaping the staginess of the audition sequences and the book ended opening and closing (the only scenes in colour) of the end of the play itself.   This means that the film is genuinely cinematic – the dress rehearsal of Caeser walking through the covered walk way with his entourage with prisoners either side of the walkway as he heads to the senate and his assassination is as tense as anything in Ralph Fiennes’ far more traditionally cinematic Coriolanus.

There are a couple of false moments – in particular the brushing of an empty chair in the auditorium by one of the prisoners with the words ‘I wonder if a woman will be sitting there’, strikes an overly-scripted note.  But this is a minor a quibble in what is an original, intense and revealing piece of cinema.  At only 76 minutes long, there is not a second of flab in there.

The performances by the leads are as good as anything you will see, despite their amateur status.  It is not wholly surprising to find that Striano has since being released from prison (on the grounds of a pardon) has become a professional actor.  His Brutus is extraordinary.    This is living and breathing cinema and living and breathing theatre.   What might have disappeared up its own worthiness, is instead chair grippingly tense.  I thoroughly recommend it.

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