Caesar Must Die (2012) — Image via

Caesar Must Die

Directed by Paolo & Vittorio Traviani (2012)

Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire) wants you to think it is a documentary about a group of Italian prisoners rehearsing and then performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Except that sometimes, it wants you think it is fiction film about the making of such a documentary. And sometimes, it wants you to think it is a filmed version of the play. Really, it is a little bit of all three, with a healthy dose of reenactment. (Think America’s Most Wanted, only with Shakespeare and better production values.)

Caesar Must Die is set in Rebibbia Prison, a massive facility outside of Rome with a maximum-security wing that houses people who have been convicted of murder, drug trafficking and other serious crimes, many of them Mafiosi and Camorristi. At the beginning of the film, we watch the final scene of Julius Caesar being performed in an auditorium in front of a large audience. After the play ends, the audience files out, while the actors are marched back to the prison and locked in their cells.

Caesar Must Die (2012) — Image via adoptfilms.netAt this point, the film shifts from color to black and white, and we are taken back six months to see the process by which the performance was put together. First, the prisoners audition for director Fabio Cavalli, who asks them to portray the same sequence of events twice in very different frames of mind. Then the roles are assigned and the actors begin rehearsing. Because the auditorium is being renovated, they must rehearse in whatever spaces are available to them, mostly corridors and recreational areas within the prison.

Eventually, it becomes clear from the deft camerawork and convenient situations that some, if not all, of the “rehearsals” are themselves rehearsed. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that what occurs during these scenes — including moments of personal reflection and animosity between the actors — is drawn from real life. And even though we only see some of the play, in a modernized Italian translation, the rehearsals add up to a compelling performance in and of themselves, underscoring the desperate and explosive nature of the events portrayed in the play.

Caesar Must Die (2012) — Image via adoptfilms.netSalvatore Striano — a former prisoner and now a professional actor who returned to Rebibbia to take part in this production — is the focal point of the play in the role of Brutus, but all of the principal actors — including Giovanni Arcuri as Caesar, Antonio Frasca as Mark Antony, and Cosimo Rega as Cassius — give compelling performances. Frasca’s rendition of the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, in particular, reminds the viewer why rhetoricians have been drooling over Shakespeare’s text for hundreds of years.

Rega — a convicted murderer who is serving out a sentence of “life meaning life” — gives the film its most quotable moment when he tells the camera, “Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison.” Caesar Must Die does not shy away from the harm the prisoners have undoubtedly done to others or the reality of the lives they will return to after the show is over. But given that so many of the greatest works of literature are about murderers and other criminals, the opportunity to see what criminals have to make of one of these great works, as well as the impact it has on them, is welcome.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.