Division Division: 'Caesar Must Die'

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by Forrest Cardamenis
February 8, 2013 2:41 PM
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"Caesar Must Die."
When there's no critical consensus on a movie, the film gets sent to Criticwire's Division Division where we measure the arguments on both sides.

Just as the 63rd annual Berlinale is getting underway, last year’s Golden Bear winner, “Caesar Must Die,” is finally making its way to theaters. Its release is still limited, but for every glowing notice it receives, someone else seems to be left in the cold. Negative reviews argue that the film fails to resonate; positive reviews argue in favor of the constant blurring of lines -- between documentary and fiction, between part and performer -- and the filmmaking craft on display. It’s a staged documentary about prisoners performing Shakespeare, so it places theater and cinema in dialogue, embodying Jaques’ idea that “all the world’s a stage” and matching form to content. Still, for some critics, that form and that content just aren't working.

PRO: It’s elegant in its exploration of narrative and documentary.

“Which is to say that the Tavianis find an arguably small, quite elegant, and preposterously effective way to blend the narrative and documentary elements at furious play in 'Caesar Must Die.'” Chris Cabin, Slant Magazine

CON:  Even so, the conclusions are far from elegant.

“But though the Tavianis’ intent is clear -- to comment on the thin line separating part and performer, as well as on the quite literally liberating powers of art -- the meanings rarely emerge with any elegance or resonance”.Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York

PRO: At least it’s a great story.

“The film’s strange technique is fascinating, but the men -- many of whom are startlingly good actors -- make 'Caesar Must Die' engrossing.” – Beth Hanna, Thompson On Hollywood!

CON: That is, if you’re crazy about Shakespeare.

“Unfortunately the formula became boring despite the film’s very short runtime and there was not enough about the characters to really care about what they were getting out of this performance…If you are a huge fan of 'Julius Caesar' perhaps you would get more out of this, but I found it rather monotonous.”Kezia Tooby, Flick Feast

PRO: Content follows form.

“But a more naturalistic 'Caesar Must Die' would’ve been a wholly different film than the one the Tavianis wanted to make, which is instead trickier, and meant to show how life and art reflect and influence each other…Neo-realism has nearly always involved that element of magnification: aestheticizing hard truths to make them simultaneously more palatable and more powerful. In 'Caesar Must Die,' the characters are both actor and audience, looking at themselves through the lens of a centuries-old fictionalization of history.”Noel Murray, A.V. Club

CON: Maybe so, but…

“But that’s all it has going for it.” – Matt Prigge, Philadelphia Weekly

PRO: Except that it looks really good, too.

"Visually the film is beautiful with staggering shot compositions of the prison and the choice of black and white for the preparatory stages contrasting with the colour of the actual performance is very effective and a nice visual metaphor for bringing colour into the prisoners’ mundane existences." Kezia Tooby, Flick Feast

As you can see, there’s some pretty sharp disagreement over the most fascinating aspects of "Caesar Must Die." Does it have anything of value to say? Does it say it well? Is it even fun to watch? It’s a bit early to make a final judgment, but that also means it’s a great time for you to check it out for yourself and come to your own conclusions. Whether or not you love it, you are in good company.

Read more reviews and grades for "Caesar Must Die."

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