Italy’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award is absolutely unlike any of its gold-courting brethren, a fiendishly clever take on William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. The kicker? It’s set in a real high-security prison, with a cast of actual inmates. The first scene of the film is opening night; it could very well be actors on the stage, being applauded and smiling, but then the tone shifts; the theatre empties, and the cast of inmates are led back to their cells by the wardens.
For the remainder of Caesar Must Die, we flash-back to 6 months prior, with the rest of the story told in monochrome. In many ways, the approach of directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani feels reminiscent of HBO’s sublime prison drama Oz, as during the audition footage, we’re introduced to the dozen-or-so principals and given details of their offences – while we remember that here, they are real. The central narrative itself is meanwhile strikingly similar to a specific Oz episode in which some of the inmates perform The Bard’s Macbeth, albeit with a more melodramatic bent than occurs here, not to mention a grisly twist also.
During these auditions, some of the acting is great, and some of it is not, but that’s exactly the point; they’re criminals, what did you expect? The Taviani Brothers harness unexpected humour from this idea, and it’s hugely enjoyable to see the “actors” slinking into their roles, mincing over dialects, and offering their own take on the material. The Bard’s written word is transformed by way of contemporary vernacular and profanity; it is an act of creation without them even realising. Leading on from this, the inmates begin to play up to their roles, leading to a very palpable, real sense of antagonism, and why not? It has to be more exciting than the rigour of prison life. What’s more surprising is how the small moments allow us to understand the inmates in their unexpected complexity; they find the play relatable, with one declaring “Shakespeare has lived on these streets”, while another simply touches the material on a theatre seat and wonders whether a beautiful woman will sit there on opening night.
The Taviani’s potent touches of the surreal help to blur the line between reality and non-reality; as one inmate peers out of a prison window while reading the scene of Caesar’s crowning, we can hear the rabble outside, though are acutely aware that this is likely just the other prisoners starting yard duty. The serio-comic use of a score during the more dramatic readings – a risk that could have wound up cheesy – is worth the gamble, heightening our excitement; like the guards of the prison, we get surprisingly into their hearty performances.
Opening night is, ostensibly, fraught with tension, as we wonder, is there going to be an explosion of violence, and more simply, will they manage to pull the play off? Avoiding the sensationalism of Oz’s take, the focus is instead on the quiet lyricism of finding small slivers of humanity in unexpected places, and the power of art to hold a mirror up to our lives, whether we’re in the cinema watching a film, or in a prison starring in one. It’s a very brief effort – scarcely running 70 minutes, minus credits – such that it might struggle to gain a head of steam during awards conversations, but there’s no denying the simple ingenuity on offer.
A clever meta-narrative achievement that boasts winningly naturalistic performances from the real inmates and doesn’t outstay its welcome.
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