Judge Jason Panella is disappointed this wasn't the sequel to Romeo Must Die.
"Ever since I became acquainted with art, this cell turned into a prison."
Caesar Must Die is fascinating—it's a Russian nesting doll of genres that blurs the line between fact and fiction to show the power of art. At its best, the film does just that: showing the timelessness of art, especially how powerful drama can work in any setting. But the film doesn't always work, especially the final third that contains one of the most egregious examples of filmmakers favoring telling over showing.
Italian sibling team Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (The Night of the Shooting Stars) filmed Caesar Must Die at the Rebibbia prison in Rome. The elderly brothers heard about the acting program within the prison and decided to film an abridged rendition of William Shakespeare's "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar" using inmates. But while the film starts off in straight-forward documentary mode (the inmates performing to a packed house in the prison's theater), it quietly shifts gears into something a bit more complex. The film switches to gorgeous black and white photography to show the six months leading up to the performance, which is where most of the movie's runtime is spent.
Here is where things get tricky. The Tavianis show the inmates auditioning for their roles, they show the inmates doing some initial read-throughs, and they show us the inmates practicing the play at length. But at some point the walls of documentary and fiction fall away as the prison itself becomes the stage. They stop practicing in a dim room and replay the story of betrayal and murder in hallways, cells, and courtyards. The inmates, mostly middle-aged men with heavy sentences, pour themselves into their roles. There are points where the actors break character for a few lines and I couldn't even tell—they switch seamlessly between Shakespeare's words and their own and then back again. This is all done without any voiceover or commentary from the Tavianis, too, which adds to the mystique. Many of these scenes seem staged, and I found it hard to tell when the actors were practicing or performing. And I think that's the point—the walls are intentionally blurred, and craft and personal experience merge into something uttering intriguing.
This all works incredibly well, and I think it does partially because the Tavianis keep the inmates at arms length from the audience. We're given the prisoners' names, the crimes they committed and the sentences served as a result, but that's it. Would it have helped if the directors explored these men's lives in greater detail? In some ways I think so, because it would have cleared the air of the unfortunate "look at the criminals acting!" tone that lurks around the corner. But doing this would have also made Caesar Must Die a more conventional documentary.
Adopt Films's DVD release is disappointing. While the 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation is quite good, there are some weird artifacts that show up in the not-optional English subtitles in multiple scenes (specifically when the camera pans across bars or grating). Additionally, the Italian Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is nothing to write home about, and there are no extras.
Caesar Must Die suffers when the Tavianis drive their "true art knows no bounds" moral home at the end, as if this somehow wasn't clear enough in the preceding hour. Right, it's a wonderful message, but getting beat over the head with a good moral is still getting beat over the head. This results in a frustrating end that sours all of the good stuff that came before.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Adopt Films
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