Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s docudrama “Caesar Must Die,” Italy’s Oscar entry that runs February 6-19 at Film Forum, takes place at Rome’s maximum-security Rebibbia Prison, and stars the facility’s actual inmates. Many of the men are serving life sentences, with a variety of high crimes on their records: drug trafficking, Cammora and Mafia affiliation, and murder. A highlight of the inmates’ year is the annual theater production, which the more dramatically inclined can audition for and perform in, perhaps as a way of dealing with the inner sagas they experience day in and out.
When the Taviani brothers take their grainy digital cameras to the prison, the play that has been selected is William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Instead of making a traditional documentary interviewing the prisoners and following their personal conflicts and triumphs as they “put on a show,” the co-directors take a more meta approach. From the outset, it is apparent that the film has coverage, which is usually not possible for a standard doc. Close-ups, reaction shots and multiple camera angles frame the men as their theater director speaks to them, and we realize that we are watching not just a film about the making of a play, but a filmed play about the making of a play.
Reality and artifice blur in a dream-like way throughout “Caesar Must Die.” Rehearsals on the prison’s stage bleed into impromptu rehearsals in the inmates’ cells, which in turn bleed into scenes acted out in various locations around Rebibbia. The expressive Salvatore, who has been cast as Brutus, asks his cellmate to go over dialogue with him in their room. As the scene plays out, other inmates, suddenly in character, arrive at Salvatore’s cell door, delivering their lines. A few cuts later, Giovanni, the rotund prisoner playing Caesar, walks grandly down the corridors of the penitentiary in a white toga, followed by his acolytes.
The prison’s architecture and layout is used to great effect in the film, literally representing Shakespeare’s famous line from “As You Like It” that “all the world’s a stage.” These men, who caused great harm in their previous worlds, now have a limited one. Rebibbia’s recreational courtyard, surrounded on four sides by cell windows, becomes the political platform for Brutus, who explains Caesar’s fatal ambition to the masses, and then for Mark Antony, who decries the accusation laid on his dead friend. Minutes earlier, one of the prison’s small, claustrophobic rooms is the site of Caesar’s death — where Salvatore and the supporting actors stage-stab Giovanni with plastic daggers.
The film’s strange technique is fascinating, but the men — many of whom are startlingly good actors — make “Caesar Must Die” engrossing. We aren’t given much information about them. There are no talking heads to tearfully fill in backstory or express remorse. Rather, we get to see their audition tapes. The inmates’ auditions, like other scenes in the film, have been choreographed and shot over multiple takes. The men are asked to twice give their name, hometown and father’s name — the first time with sadness, and the second time with anger. As we watch highlights from these auditions edited together, it’s revelatory how much can be learned about a person from simply hearing him recite his father’s name. One inmate gesticulates wildly, the next covers his face, another pummels the air.
“Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison,” an inmate says to the camera. Indeed, Rebibbia’s annual play is a double-edged sword for its prisoners, allowing them to escape via extracurricular activity but also reminding them of how far removed their lives are from real freedom. Perhaps this is why the documentary moves on such a softly smudged line between reality and performance. A jail can transform into a theater and criminals can become Caesars and generals, but it only takes one shot of a warden closing a creaky cell door for the illusion of escape to shatter. Yet this shot in “Caesar Must Die” is also staged.