Review: Caesar Must Die

2012 was, at least for European cinema, a year in which long-standing maestros shone over their younger peers. Haneke’s Amour conquered Cannes with fine performances from veterans Riva and Trintignant; the legendary Alain Resnais showed he still has a few tricks left with the wryly-titled You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet; and in Berlin, the Taviani Brothers won their first major award in decades with a peculiar hybrid between theatre, documentary and fiction called Caesar Must Die which picked up the Golden Bear.

Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have written and directed together for almost 60 years now, frequently making playful films mixing myth and fact, about the ways art gives life meaning and purpose. Caesar Must Die therefore fits in with the finest work of this unique sibling duo. On the face of it, it is a documentary following a group of inmates, in a high-security Rome prison, preparing a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for the prison’s theatrical workshop. But yet if one looks deeper this film is really not a documentary.

There are many levels of reality which the film consciously plays with here and enjoys going back and forth from. It quickly becomes clear that the scenes depicting the rehearsals are also staged, and the prisoners are often “acting” as themselves. This probably sounds more confusing than it should, so it is worthwhile breaking the film down into 3 sources: the influence of the prisoners themselves, the Tavianis and Shakespeare.

The first of these turns this film into an inquiry into the transformative power of art. Some inmates had performed on the prison’s yearly theatre program before, and one (who plays Brutus in the rendition of Caesar) had already been released and played minor parts in other films, but came back just to be in the Tavianis’ film. We are briefly told of their crimes, and echoes abound of the violence in their pasts, but the film manages to let us see the humans behind the label of “prisoner”. The intensity with which they merge into their roles is compelling, and their introduction to art is both therapeutic and liberating – we see the visible joy on their faces after the success of performance night.

But Caesar Must Die gives a subtle portrait of the other side of these men’s relation to art, which has opened up new vistas for them and only made their cells all the more restricting, as the ambiguous final line of the film suggests. In fact many details added by the Tavianis remind us of the confinement of the inmates, not least the actual structure of the film, with the rehearsal scenes, shot in crisp black and white, being enclosed by two colour segments just like the cell walls close in the prisoners. It is through techniques such as these that the Tavianis control the “reality” they are recording to make it become the film they want it to be.

Finally, the choice of Julius Caesar as the play to be performed is an obviously apt one. The prisoners/actors, many of whom are former Mafiosi familiar with real violence, connect with the classic tale of murder, power and betrayal. The scenes where they step out of their Shakespearean roles to recite lines as themselves (presumably scripted and staged by the Tavianis) seem less convincing however, but do add another dimension to the film’s theme of life versus art, as the inmates somehow seem more “real” as their characters in the play than as themselves.

Besides showcasing the universal resonance of the Bard’s works, Caesar Must Die also displays the unassuming humanism of the Tavianis in abundance and their lifelong meditation on the intertwining of life with art. Long may these maestros continue to make such intriguing films. Very much recommended.


Caesar Must Die: ★★★★

Cesare Deve Morire

(Italy, 2012)

Dir: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani