The odds were not in Shakespeare's favor. "Caesar Must Die," octogenarian Italian sibling directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's docudrama about a production of "Julius Caesar" enacted by prisoners, screened early in the Berlin International Film Festival to a solid but not overwhelmingly positive reception.
The following days saw plenty of insta-duds ("Captive," "Meteor"), emboldening the tendency of Berlin regulars to cry foul about the standards for Berlin's competition. But there were also enough widely acclaimed choices (including Christian Petzold's "Barbara," which premiered the same day as "Caesar Must Die" and won the Silver Bear for Best Direction) to make the memory of the Tavianis' curious work fade to the background.
Film critic Neil Young, who specializes in generating precise statistics for festival winners on his website Jigsaw Lounge, listed the odds of its win at 11/1, far below Swiss director Ursula Meier's "Sister," which eventually won a special jury prize — possibly a consolation prize handed out by some portion of this year's jury less thrilled about the Golden Bear's eventual destination.
Then again, that jury — headed by legendary U.K. director Mike Leigh — did find room for some of the more obvious selections. In a conversation with Indiewire on Friday, film critic Shane Danielsen chose Kim Nguyen's African war drama "War Witch" as the competition film deserving of the top prize, while his colleague Andrew Grant singled out "Barbara." At the end of the day, "War Witch" landed an acting prize while Petzold nabbed the Silver Bear.
Though some Berlin attendees think Leigh and his jury missed the mark, in retrospect the selection of "Caesar Must Die" for the Golden Bear makes a lot more sense than the headlines suggest. With its expressive mixture of black-and-white and color photography to illuminate the metaphorical escape of theater for its incarcerated performers, the film was an enthralling gimmick incredibly well-realized in sheer cinematic skill. Perhaps more importantly, "Caesar Must Die" was among the least divisive of the competition films. A few people loved it and a lot of people liked it, but hardly anyone hated it.
Additionally, the fact that these directors still create provocative work when other filmmakers half their age have already considered retirement invites immediate admiration. In that sense, the Golden Bear amounts to a lifetime achievement award for the Tavianias (expect retrospectives to accompany the theatrical release of "Caesar Must Die").
It's hard to speak to a jury's decisions without knowing their process. But if we can assume that Leigh chose a film that he truly enjoyed more than the rest, one can see how "Caesar Must Die" appealed to him. With its emphasis on the nature of performance, as the prisoners slip in and out of Shakespeare's text and discover aspects of their true identities in the material, the rehearsal process begs comparison to the improvised nature of Leigh's own production methods.
Whatever the reasons for the Taviani triumph, the element of surprise associated with its win speaks to Berlin's unwieldy identity on the world stage. Longtime Berlin attendees routinely denigrate the festival and its director, Dieter Kosslick, for putting mediocre films in prominent places. There's no question it could use a cleaner approach.
However, this first-timer at Berlin managed to see a number of terrific movies, including a few near-masterpieces in expected places ("Tabu" and "Sister" in competition) as well as some stunning work that basically came out of nowhere ("Everybody In Our Family," "Solider/Citizen," "The Delay"), while largely avoiding the obvious duds. As a result, I found the program dense enough to offer enormous possibilities. No matter how many qualms the selection invites, Berlin is a complex, necessary mark on the festival calendar, and it remains — as this year proved beyond a doubt — entirely unpredictable.