Monday, February 4, 2013

Shared humanity trumps politics & passion: the Taviani brothers' CAESAR MUST DIE

What is it about movies that offer up the subject of theater programs in prison that makes these films such slam dunks? I don't think I've seen a single one -- from the riveting American documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars to the wonderfully moving and funny Spanish narrative film, My Prison Yard -- that didn't ring my bell loud and long. Now comes another, this one boasting some very classy bona fides: CAESAR MUST DIE Written and directed by the estimable Taviani Brothers, Paolo and Vittorio (with quite a bit of help from a certain Willie the Shake and his play about power, politics, trust and loyalty, Julius Caesar), this newest theater-in-prison movie rings that bell once again.

Yet why this should be so -- hugely so, at that -- is more difficult to pin down. But let me try. First off, the Tavianis combine so effort-lessly and well the documentary style with narrative technique while incorporating Shakespeare's great play (without giving us nearly all of it) that their film becomes a very odd, off-kilter work all its own. We're kept alert and suspended by the back-and-forth use of story-telling, cinematography that goes from color to black-and-white and back again, characters that are both their prisoner selves and people we know from history (and Shakespeare's work). Finally all these meld into one very real, if quite short (the film lasts but 76 minutes) movie that is part documentary (these are real prisoners, really acting Shakespeare), part narrative, and all Taviani.

The Tavianis (above, in color and black-and-white -- with Paolo on the left and Vittorio at right) begin with the performance of the play's finale and then the curtain call and applause from an understandably excited audience. Then we go back in time to meet the inmates and watch as they audition and are cast in various roles. Most of these guys seem like natural performers, but some, in particular, stand out and are promptly cast in the leading roles. Of special note are the prisoners who end up playing Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Marc Anthony and the soothsayer.

Caesar, in particular (Giovanni Arcuri, above, center), possesses enormous bearing and strength, while Brutus (Salvatore Striano, seated below) has a marvelous face that seems to mirror his every small change of feeling.

As Cassius, Cosimo Rega (below, right) offers quite the right lean and hungry look, even if he does seem also to be eating quite well. Antonio Frasca (center, left) makes a stentorian and rather endearing Mark Anthony, while Francesco Carusone's quirky body movements (two photos below) and sense of derangement, put to odd use in his audition, prove perfectly suited to the role of the soothsayer.

In the end credits, we are told that certain of these actors have gone on to performing careers -- quite understandable -- once their prison time was completed. Others, serving life sentences, are not so lucky. One especially sad moment occurs when a prisoner notes that, once you have discovered art, your prison cell becomes unbearable.

The use of the prison facilities -- where the rehearsals and indeed some of the actual performance takes place (the Tavianis make no real differentiation here, which is all to the good for it makes every moment count in terms of immediacy and meaning -- works spectacularly well, for the prison, with its walls and guards, not only mirrors our increasingly closed society but also makes the play appear to fit well into any period, past, present or future.

Though the whole of Shakespeare's play is not here, there is enough if it to please fans of the Bard and may send some of the them immediately back to read the work once again. So what is it, then, that makes this movie so powerful? In part, it's due to the combination of these actual prisoners performing a play that reflects well their own society and ours, creating a kind of life-mirrors-art-mirrors-life situation, the ramifications of which keeps bubbling up in the play, the actors, and the culture of prison life.

And then it happens. A singular moment that I have never seen before in this play. (In fact, it is one of the things that makes this a movie.) It takes place during the curtain call, when one character helps lift another to his feet and their faces meet. In that single moment -- which we get to see twice, though it is fleeting and not commented upon at all -- everything becomes clear. Forgiveness, redemption and understanding are present and accounted for, as the simple gesture cuts to the heart of the matter, derailing the corruption, pettiness, politics and ambitions that have preceded it.

The gesture goes beyond everything we have so far seen and tells us, yes, we're all in this together. Suddenly the scurvy politics of the play, as well as the ugly deeds -- petty drug deals or Mafia-sponsored murders -- done by these men and which landed them in prison don't begin to compare to the brotherhood we've just witnessed. As usual, with the Tavianis, humanity trumps all. This, as much as anything, is what makes this odd hybrid of a movie so stirring and memorable. And humane.

Caesar Must Die, from Adopt Films, opens Wednesday in New York City at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and then moves to various playdates elsewhere around the country. Click here, then click on Caesar Must Die, then scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, which are listed, top to bottom, in order of their opening.

No comments: