The film opens with a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. A low budget theatre production is all this appears to be at first until we see the actors leave the stage and enter their cells; they are inmates at a high security prison. Whilst this opening sequence is dominated by the deep reds of the costumes, what follows is in black and white. It is six months earlier and we see the auditions for the roles and the subsequent rehearsals building up to that pivotal performance. The auditions are amusing and we are introduced to each of the men with a close up, much like a mugshot, and text informing us of their crime and sentence. The majority of the film consists of the rehearsals with little real dialogue from the characters, merely them rehearsing and for me this is the biggest problem with this film.
There are a couple of moments which reveal that the prisoners are relating to the text, drawing parallels with their own life and generally being affected by it, but these moments are few and far between. One person comments how he found Shakespeare boring at school, another says that “since I got to know art this cell has become a prison”. However, the film is dominated by the play, supposedly offering a new vision of a classical story but instead just feeling like an amateur dramatics performance, which essentially it is.
Visually the film is beautiful with staggering shot compositions of the prison and the choice of black and white for the preparatory stages contrasting with the colour of the actual performance is very effective and a nice visual metaphor for bringing colour into the prisoners’ mundane existences. Colour is also used when the camera locates a landscape image, reflecting the dreams and desires of the inmates. Unfortunately the formula became boring despite the film’s very short runtime and there was not enough about the characters to really care about what they were getting out of this performance.
The concept of the film is very interesting but gets lost in Julius Caesar and you have to struggle to find the meaning. It is nice to see the prisoners become so immersed in their task but there is not enough substance to keep the audience engaged. If you are a huge fan of Julius Caesar perhaps you would get more out of this, but I found it rather monotonous.
I didn’t even realise until the end of the film, when the aspirations of a couple of the inmates are revealed, that they are actually inmates in a real Italian prison, not that I believe this brings any more depth to the film. Overall, this is a nice idea and an interesting comment on the effect art can have on people as well as life in prison, but there is too much Shakespeare meaning the points get lost. The few moments when we catch a glimpse of the affect the play is having on a person is rewarding and visually the film is also interesting, but it is not enough to prevent boredom setting in.
Caesar Must Die is in Competition at this year’s Berlinale.
Directors: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani
Runtime: 76 mins