Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Terrence Malick's Next Film With Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara & Michael Fassbender Reportedly Gets Titled Terrence Malick's Next Film With Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara & Michael Fassbender Reportedly Gets Titled Watch: Jake Gyllenhaal Gets Bloody And Bruised In First Trailer For Boxing Drama 'Southpaw' Watch: Jake Gyllenhaal Gets Bloody And Bruised In First Trailer For Boxing Drama 'Southpaw' New Infographic Lays Out Canonical 'Star Wars' Timeline With Films, TV And Books New Infographic Lays Out Canonical 'Star Wars' Timeline With Films, TV And Books First Official Image: Jesse Eisenberg As Lex Luthor In 'Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice' First Official Image: Jesse Eisenberg As Lex Luthor In 'Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice' Watch: First Trailer For Arnold Schwarzenegger's Zombie Pic 'Maggie' With Abigail Breslin Watch: First Trailer For Arnold Schwarzenegger's Zombie Pic 'Maggie' With Abigail Breslin Idris Elba Replaces Jamie Foxx In Harmony Korine's 'The Trap,' Al Pacino, Robert Pattinson, James Franco Also Join Idris Elba Replaces Jamie Foxx In Harmony Korine's 'The Trap,' Al Pacino, Robert Pattinson, James Franco Also Join 10 Terrible Films Starring Great Actors 10 Terrible Films Starring Great Actors Watch: Tom Hanks Acts Out His Filmography In 7-Minutes On 'The Late Late Show' Watch: Tom Hanks Acts Out His Filmography In 7-Minutes On 'The Late Late Show' Watch: Trailer For 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Unrated Blu-Ray Edition, Will Also Feature An Alternate Ending Watch: Trailer For 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' Unrated Blu-Ray Edition, Will Also Feature An Alternate Ending New Directors/New Films Review: Jia Zhang-ke Produced 'K' Is A New Take On Franz Kafka's 'The Castle' New Directors/New Films Review: Jia Zhang-ke Produced 'K' Is A New Take On Franz Kafka's 'The Castle' Viggo Mortensen Reveals He Turned Down Quentin Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight,' Auditioned For 'Reservoir Dogs' Viggo Mortensen Reveals He Turned Down Quentin Tarantino's 'The Hateful Eight,' Auditioned For 'Reservoir Dogs' Watch: First Teaser Trailer For 'Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation' With Tom Cruise Arrives, If You Choose To Accept It Watch: First Teaser Trailer For 'Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation' With Tom Cruise Arrives, If You Choose To Accept It Jonathan Nolan Says His Original Ending To 'Interstellar' Was “Much More Straightforward” Jonathan Nolan Says His Original Ending To 'Interstellar' Was “Much More Straightforward” The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki All The Songs In 'Pitch Perfect' Including La Roux, David Guetta, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj & More All The Songs In 'Pitch Perfect' Including La Roux, David Guetta, Azealia Banks, Nicki Minaj & More

Karlovy Vary Film Fest Review: Lifers Imitate Art In Prison-Set Shakespearean Docudrama 'Caesar Must Die'

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist July 2, 2012 at 1:56PM

In a prison in Rome, real-life convicts prepare to mount a production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” and as the night of the public performance draws nearer, their real lives and the play’s narrative conflate to the point of indistinguishability. So runs an approximate logline for the Taviani brothers’ “Caesar Must Die” which arrived at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival trailing glowing reviews and the Golden Bear from Berlin in its wake. And given that summation, it’s easy to see why it won – there are few themes more festival-friendly than the interrelatedness of art and life. But there’s a difference between suggesting that such a relation exists and exploring or commenting on its nature, a difference the veteran directors, and the more breathless of the film’s admirers, seem only sporadically to acknowledge.
0
Caesar Must Die

In a prison in Rome, real-life convicts prepare to mount a production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” and as the night of the public performance draws nearer, their real lives and the play’s narrative conflate to the point of indistinguishability. So runs an approximate logline for the Taviani brothers’ “Caesar Must Die” which arrived at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival trailing glowing reviews and the Golden Bear from Berlin in its wake. And given that summation, it’s easy to see why it won – there are few themes more festival-friendly than the interrelatedness of art and life. But there’s a difference between suggesting that such a relation exists and exploring or commenting on its nature, a difference the veteran directors, and the more breathless of the film’s admirers, seem only sporadically to acknowledge.  

Not that there is not a lot to enjoy here. The film is undeniably moving at times, and there are moments of metatextual elegance that feel as though they tremble on the brink of genuine insight. The largely non-professional cast (only the lead, Salvatore Striano who plays Brutus, is now a professional and only since receiving a pardon having served a term in this very prison) and the completely authentic surroundings (the film is shot on locations within the prison walls), lend proceedings a welcome rawness, only a little romanced by the extensive use of black and white photography. And it is never less than absorbing. Moving us onward in the wider story as we move later through the play is a clever touch that means that forward momentum is at all times maintained, and performance night becomes the convergence point for the climaxes of both strands.

Caesar Must Die

But the film’s strength and point of differentiation -- using real-life prisoners to play the roles -- also proves its chief flaw. There is a lack of focus around quite what the directors are trying to get at; we were told before our screening that their aim was to show that prisoners are human too, which sounds simultaneously like it’s too small an ambition for such an overtly experimental approach, and too large a claim for the resulting film. Because once the film gets going, we get very little of the prisoners’ lives or thoughts outside of the play. The art and artistry of Shakespeare's play and the mounting of it doesn't just gradually commandeer the film, it swallows it whole at an early stage, with the movie only occasionally referring back to the psychologies of the actual inmates. And, yes, that they live vicariously through their roles, and that from the tedium of prison life the play provides an escape so seductive they spend every waking moment thinking about it, may be precisely the point, but for the audience a little more context would have been welcome.

Such reorienting moments do occur, infrequently. Aside from the device of onscreen titling suddenly informing us of the 'actors'' crimes and sentences when they first gather as an ensemble, there is a rather lovely sequence in which their voices, seemingly reading letters home, are overlaid over shots of the prison exterior at night, and drifting past tiny window after window, we sense the lives, dreams and frustrations the huge, solid building confines. And on a couple of other occasions the actors lapse into ad libbing off the Shakespearean text, prompted by some unexplained rivalry or personal revelation. But these moments are too few, and too staccato in their punctuation of the play's narrative to give us anything more than brief, snatched-away glimpses at the men beneath the men beneath the robes.
 

Caesar Must Die

Because that's the crux of the matter. We are not watching Cassius. Nor are we watching a prisoner playing Cassius, as we might be were the film a straightforward documentary about a prison theatrical production. In fact, we're watching real prisoners play prisoners playing their roles in "Julius Caesar," so the reality of their situations can feel simply too far removed to have any resonance. This is exacerbated by the style of acting these non-professionals employ - perfect for high theatrics, it is just too big, too forced in the non-Shakespearean moments. Again, that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing: the complex layering is a potential source of immense richness. But we never get a sure enough throughline of directorial intent or guiding principle, and so it becomes difficult to navigate the often conflicting currents of artifice and authenticity that flow through the film.

So how much of the interest in any given scene is borrowed from Shakespeare and how much actually earned through canny directorial choices and compelling film craft? There is no doubt plenty of the latter on display – some of the scenes are laid out exquisitely, like the stabbing scene rehearsed in a tiny prison yard with added Greek chorus in the shape of three watching guards, or the dueling speeches scene (sidebar: is Brutus’ “not that I love Caesar less but that I loved Rome more” vs Anthony’s “Friends, Romans, Countymen” the precursor of the rap-off? All this needs is an MC shouting “boom!” every time a barb lands). But it is telling that these are the film’s most successful moments – they are pure theatre reimagined as pure cinema, but the reality of the actors’ backgrounds is all but absent from these sections. They’re simply very imaginatively staged Shakespearean set pieces. And that’s not to detract from that idea -- the Shakespearean reinterpretation/restaging boogie has yielded some compelling results, “Richard III,” and “Coriolanus” spring to mind -- it’s just that this film sells itself on the extra layer it adds, then fails to deliver on those terms.

Caesar Must Die

It’s by no means a poor film, and certainly doesn’t want for talkability, as this 1000-odd word review might suggest. But in this clash between art and life, art gets all the best lines, the most coherent characters, the most creative treatment and the most screen time. On this slanted playing ground, is it any wonder art wins hands down? And so we emerge with a film that, for all the interesting questions it poses, really owes the vast majority of its watchability not to the non-professional actors, or the writer-directors, or to the intriguing premise, but to some guy called Shakespeare who’s been dead for 400 years. “Julius Caesar” is a cracking play. “Caesar Must Die” is a good testament to that, but if you’re looking for a whole lot more, we’d have to say the emperor is rather underdressed. [B]

This article is related to: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, Review, Caesar Must Die


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


Check out Indiewire on LockerDome on LockerDome

E-Mail Updates