Roberto Rossellini once said that a good movie has the power to change the world, and here’s a film made by his compatriots (octogenarian Italian brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani) that may prove him right. It certainly alters the way one looks at the world, at history and how art can lock people in a vice-grip of obsessive fascination, or free them from the incarcerating chains of the mundane.
“Cesare Deve Morire” is the Taviani brothers’ latest work in a joint career that spans more than six decades, and won them the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival. A documentary about inmates at Rome’s maximum-security prison Rebibbia, it follows their lives from the day that they’re told they will stage a production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” moves through the weeks of rehearsals, then reaches an impressive climax at a public performance.
To describe “Cesare Deve Morire” as moving would be to cheapen its no-exit, unforgiving reality. Most of the inmates have served more than 10 years already, many of them sentenced to twice that time or more. Some of them have committed multiple crimes. Others were members of the Mafia.
The brothers never resort to traditional documentary techniques of extensive interviews or narrative descriptions of back stories — the men give out their names, crimes and sentences and that’s about it. The filmmakers are less interested in what these men did in the past and more in how they can duplicate the mindsets of the characters in Shakespeare’s play.
And they would have a point: The setting is Rome and the cast have firsthand knowledge of murder, intrigue and betrayal. Indeed, Salvatore Striano as Brutus seemingly welds his personality into the character, and at one point he confesses how disturbing it is to enact the process of homicide, and can’t bring himself to say certain lines: “It brings some memories back.”
For other inmates, participating in the play is a double-edged sword. Rehearsals provide a respite from the monotony of prison life, and “Julius Caesar” opens doors to a world they had never known. It’s also a chance to step back and view or analyze their past misdemeanors, and they occupy their roles with the assured confidence of professional actors.
On the other hand, Cosimo Rega, who plays Cassius, says, “Since I discovered art, this cell has become a prison.”
As long as they’re at work on the play, these men are treated as human beings and artists. Once they return to their concrete cell blocks, they morph back into prisoners, their lives sucked into the vacuum of their sentence. Their frustration and despair are palpable, and for better or worse, “Julius Caesar” gives them more awareness and insight into who they really are.
Does Shakespeare give them redemption? No doubt the answer is yes, but it’s horrible to contemplate their state of minds once the performance is over. No more rehearsals or working on stage props; the sound of the cell door slamming shut behind them will have the resonance of finality.
With this in mind, it’s hard to say whether Rebibbia’s Shakespeare rendition works as the intended social-rehab tool or ultimately sinks the men into a deeper dungeon. There’s a sort of solace, though, in watching the faces of the prisoner/actors. When the rehearsals first start, their eyes are dead and their facial muscles hardly move, but in a matter of days they become more graceful and alert, distinctly energized.
The filmmakers have shot this almost exclusively in black and white with a few, small splashes of color. Rebibbia comes off as a textbook case of minimalist architecture, its streamlined planes and edges creating a harmony with its severe concrete texture. There’s also an abundance of open space and cold, colorless light creating small pools of brightness on walls and dark corridors. The inmates’ faces and bodies are shot in a way that recalls Roman statues, and their physical language speaks of a real, passionate violence impossible to choreograph.
A triumph of the less-is-more approach, “Cesare Deve Morire” transports you to Rome in 44 B.C. in a way an extravaganza period-movie studded with a big-name cast could never hope to.