By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 12, 2012 at 1:39PM
The prospects of criminals performing Shakespeare has been explored in conventional terms by the 2005 documentary "Shakespeare Behind Bars;" sibling directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's "Caesar Must Die" takes a far more provocative approach. Following a beautifully shot introductory sequence that captures the finale of the "Julius Caesar" production in glorious, dazzlingly colorful detail, "Caesar Must Die" flashes back to six months earlier, at which point the imagery shifts to expressive black-and-white, appropriately evoking the drab interiors.
Set in the high-security division of Italy's Rebbiba Prison, the movie follows a group of hardened prisoners as they prepare for a production of "Julius Caesar." The inmates' identities, announced by title cards in the wake of a casting session, make it evident that they fit the tough roles of elder statesman and warriors that the story demands. The man cast as Caesar faces a 17-year sentence; others are there for life. The play not only fills their time but also provides a literary structure for expressing the real drama they experience each day, giving voice to a collective rage. It's method acting taken to its most extreme form.
If this were a scripted drama instead of an inventively staged documentary, it would be a lesser work. but it takes the form of a separate fiction, casting the men in a reenactment of the rehearsal process: They enact the play within claustrophobic hallways and jail cells, turning the prison into an interactive stage. Narratively, this functions like a cold exercise in meta storytelling, but the Tavianis validate their project with its basis in reality.
With no talking heads or a single shaky cam, "Caesar Must Die" neither looks like a documentary nor behaves like one, so the gimmick of following a truncated version of the play within the prison confines often feels quite thin. However, because the movie begins with the performance, it has no need to build toward a typical performative climax, freeing the directors to explore the malleability of Shakespearean drama as it reflects the prisoners' grim outlook.
The reality of the situation takes the burden off the actors to deliver their lines with the utmost credibility; in fact, when the actors fail at their work, it takes on a greater dimensionality. At times they even slip out of character and recognize other tensions in the room. When their performances merge with their personalities, "Julius Caesar" becomes less a script than a vessel. In the midst of delivering a monologue about the chaos of Roman society, one of them pauses for reflection. "It sounds like this Shakespeare lived in the streets of my city," he says.
The Tavianis are comfortable leaving specifics by the wayside: "Caesar Must Die" contains no extensive details about the inmates' specific deeds or lengthy confessions about their oppressive routines -- although they do admit a greater awareness of their limited world through the temporary escape provided by the production. Caesar's funeral climax unfolds in full view of the inmates as if the cast were gladiators performing before an arena of bloodthirsty spectators, an apt dramatization of the inmates' inner turmoil.
At an absurdly trim 76 minutes, "Caesar Must Die" never fully reaches the potential displayed in such sequences. Still,there's no doubting the gloomy clarity the Tavianis bring to their subject. End credits announce the future acting ambitions of two inmates, while simply identifying the rest and providing no further details. The material doesn't vindicate them. Rather, by performing a Shakespearean tragedy, the prisoners reveal that they already live it.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Mixed reviews out of Berlin and an experimental production method may hold "Caesar" back from much of a wide release, although it has enough unique appeal to make its way to an alternative release or perhaps a solid television deal.