Caesar Must Die (2012)

Director:  Paolo & Vittorio Taviani
Cast:  Cosimo RegaSalvatore StrianoGiovanni Arcuri
Plot:  Inmates at a high-security prison in Rome prepare for a public performance of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

Genre:  Drama / Documentary
Awards:  Won Golden Bear and Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Berlin).
Runtime:  76min
Rating:  PG13

Surprising many cinephiles when it won the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, Caesar Must Die runs at a paltry 76 minutes, but is so dense in its thematic and meta-filmic material that one would probably leave the theater quite positively dazed.

Directed by the Taviani brothers, who are perhaps the oldest pair of sibling filmmakers working today (and still winning major awards), this Golden Bear winner can be viewed and appreciated at many levels.

It deconstructs film form and blurs the line between material reality, filmic reality, and performance reality. It can be classified as a docudrama, but it sets viewers to think beyond the boundaries of its hybridized genre.

But first, a brief overview of its premise: Inmates of a high-security prison audition for roles in their annual performance of a play (in this case Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar'), and prepare extensively to perform for the public.

It looks like a pretty boring film at first glance, but because the Tavianis present their film with a unique visual style and challenge viewers to interpret the multiple spatio-temporal layers existing in the film, it becomes intriguing. Well, of course, intriguing to filmgoers who find these sort of meta-filmic explorations mind-blowing.

Shot primarily in black-and-white with some use of colour, Caesar Must Die sets itself in a sparse prison compound. The result is a visual style that is raw, seemingly unmanipulated, and alluding to a kind of unmediated observation.

Notice that I use the word 'observation' and not 'surveillance'. This is because the inmates who are performing as actors in a film and as actors in a play, and as themselves in a documentary, are free to explore their characters' personas without any kind of institutionalized restriction.

In a strangely conscious sort of way, the prison becomes early Rome, and then becomes a performance stage, before institutionalization sets in again. There is a kind of intertwining of art and fate. One inmate sums it up with a line that captures the essence of this film: "Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison."

Caesar Must Die takes one of the most artistic of pursuits - performing a Shakespeare play, and places it in the hearts of the most uncultured of people - murderers, drug dealers, and gangsters. Seeing the intensity of their rehearsals and actual performances in docudrama mode is quite incredible.

The Tavianis also include some haunting music that heightens some of the scenes in the film (or is it heightening scenes of the play?) You don't need to understand Shakespeare to enjoy the film. But you may need to understand the intention of the filmmakers to appreciate what they are doing with this small indie Italian film.  

Verdict:  This Golden Berlin Bear winner is an intense docudrama on the intertwining nature of art and fate.

GRADE: B (7.5/10 or 3.5 stars)

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