The new Tavianni brothers picture, Caesar Must Die, refuses to fall neatly into any generic category. The sibling helmers, who have been supplying highly praised art-house fare for decades (e.g. Padre Padrone (1977); The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982)), have now adapted Shakespeare's Julius Caesar with a brisk, stellar outcome.
Filming inside an actual Italian prison, Rebibbia, the incarcerated here play themselves portraying the Bard's historic creations.
We see the cast of cons audition, rehearse, fall out of character, and even carp about being stuck in a group cell with five inmates suffering from diarrhea. Then somewhere between the scenes of Caesar refusing the crown offered him by Marc Anthony and the one of his demise, an inmate actor, lying in his bunk bed and staring at the ceiling of his cell, dwells upon the child he is not raising; another caresses a seat in the theater he will be performing in and anticipates that maybe a woman will sit where his fingers now lie.
So is this a documentary or a fictional offering? Labels here actually do not much matter, since however you categorize Caesar Must Die, the end result is one of the more superb takes on Shakespeare in recent years. The performances are devastating, the direction incisive, and the intercutting between the modernized text and prison life totally illuminating.
Especially singular is Salvatore Striano, one of the two members of this troupe to be pardoned, and one who has since been performing on stage and in film (Gomorrah (2008)). His Brutus is the centerpiece of the film, an open wound of a man who betrays the friend he loves in the belief he is saving Rome from a dictatorship. He realizes too late that the gods are against him. His is an award-worthy performance.
But how will Shakespearean purists react? The Tavianis have noted that Will "has always been a father, a brother and then -- as we grew older -- a son for us." This adoration is apparent. Here's an extraordinary melding of the actualities of modern man with his ancient past. Sadly, humankind seemingly hasn't made much progress when it comes to controlling its jealous, ambitious, and testosterone-tinged impulses. Happily, human frailties continue to make great art.
(By the way, Caesar Must Die was a highlight of the 2012 New York Film Festival.) - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Queer Theatre" and "Gay and Lesbian Identity in Literature" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.