‘How many ages hence/ Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er/ In states unborn and accents yet unknown!’
(Julius Caesar, 3.1.122-4)
Norrie Epstein’s entertaining book The Friendly Shakespeare offers a theory as to why Julius Caesar – that staple of seventh grade English classes – has been a traditional favorite for introducing American students to the works of the Bard. Julius Caesar is one of the shorter and more fast-paced of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and – as an added bonus – has no sexual double entendres to disrupt a class of giggle-prone pre-teens.
It’s true that the world of Julius Caesar – one of political ambition and political violence – is a man’s world, and its one female role could be cut without unduly altering the play. So upon viewing an all-male cast performing the play at the beginning of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Cesare deve morire (Caesar Must Die), there’s initially nothing to give you pause. Nothing, that is, until the actors file offstage in a group, without speaking or breaking ranks, and arrive at a guarded turnstile. We are in the maximum-security wing of Rome’s Rebibbia Prison; the actors are real-life convicts serving long sentences for drug trafficking and other felonies.
I was at first skeptical about the premise of Cesare deve morire, the winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. (The Taviani brothers are also famous for carrying off the Palme d’Or for their 1977 film Padre Padrone.) Would the film make a starry-eyed case, I wondered, for rehabilitation through art? Or would its literal-minded contention be that real-life mafiosi – with their first-hand experience of violence – are better equipped than professional actors to play the assassins Brutus and Cassius? (You could just as well argue for casting real-life politicians – US senators, say, or British MPs – in Julius Caesar.)
Though several prisoners are well-cast (especially Caesar, Brutus, and the Soothsayer) the acting in this heavily-cut, bare-bones version of Shakespeare’s play is uneven, and the prisoners’ final onstage performance (filmed in color at the beginning and end of the film) has the look of a high-school production. Far more effective is the black-and-white rehearsal footage, shot in various locations of the prison, which constitutes the bulk of the film. The staging of these scenes can be ingenious, as when we hear – but don’t see – the roar of the Roman mob from the prison yard through a window grating; or, conversely, when the entire prison population – locked up in their cells – becomes audience to Brutus and Mark Antony orating over Caesar’s exposed corpse.
In another scene, set in the prison library, a long-standing grudge boils over between the prisoner playing Caesar (Giovanni Arcuri) and one of his enemies. Not wanting to violate the sanctity of their rehearsal space, Caesar suggests taking it outside, and we don’t get to see the ensuing fight in the hallway. Throughout the film the actors only rarely break the fourth wall by such extra-Shakespearean dialogue or behavior – making one hesitate to term Cesare deve morire a documentary rather than an adaptation. We know the prisoners’ names, the length of their sentences, and what they’re in there for, but otherwise the film shows little curiosity about the men behind the roles.
Yet however successful they may be in disappearing into their parts, it’s impossible to forget that everyone in this film is a real-life prisoner in Rebibbia (with the exception of Gomorra’s Salvatore Striano, the ex-inmate turned actor who plays Brutus). Even though all the actors volunteered to be part of the cast, there’s something morally troubling about this artistic experiment, which has given a fleeting taste of freedom to men who are entirely un-free. Standing in the empty theater where the prisoners will later perform their play for an audience of non-inmates, one actor runs his hand over a plush seat and says ruefully, ‘A woman could be sitting here.’ There’ll be no post-performance drinking bouts or hookups for the members of this company – after they’ve taken their bows (to loud applause from a packed theater) it’s lock-up time once more.
Indeed, the film closes on a note of despair, as one of the prisoners, returned to his cell, looks around him and exclaims, ‘Since I came to know art, this cell has become a prison to me.’ It’s hard to tell if the irony is intentional, or if the gesture was pre-rehearsed; but the statement sums up the inherent contradiction of prison, a place which seeks to recreate the conditions of life outside while at the same time making life as unlivable as possible.
Cesare deve morire, currently playing at the Beyoğlu Sineması, is in Italian with Turkish subtitles (as well as Italian subtitles when the prisoners speak in Neapolitan or other dialects). Watching it may very well re-kindle your interest in a Shakespeare play you haven’t read in decades. It certainly did for me. Will Washburn