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.
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.