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Review: ‘Caesar Must Die’

Just In Time For The Ides of March, A New Take On An Old Tale

Above: The inmates of Rebibbia prison in Rome prepare for Caesar's final day in "Cesare deve morire"

What happens when a member of the Mafia is cast as Cesare in an Italian prison version of Julius Ceasar? Who will live and who will die? Guset blogger Rebecca Romani recommends seeing "Cesare deve morire" for the Ides of March.

March is full of possible celebrations- St. Patrick’s Day, The first day of Spring. But what of the Ides of March? The day the Roman Republic ended in a hail of knife thrusts?

If the play’s your thing, the San Diego Italian Film Festival is screening a stunning take on Julius Caesar this week, sure to change how you see the Roman Senator and the conspirators that cut him down that fateful day in March.

“Cesare deve moririe (Caesar Must Die)” is a striking film that blends documentary with scripted narration so well it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Even when the actual performance ends and the performers returned to their cells, the line between reality and retelling seems blurred.

Directed by the famed Taviani Brothers now in their 80’s, (“Padre, padrone,” “La notte di San Lorenzo” (“Night of the Shooting Stars”), the film is shot on location in Rebibbia Prison, primarily in stunning black and white, a nod to their early days in Italian neo-realism, encompassing many of the same themes: the common man vs. the State, moral consequences and issues of class and regionalism.

The film starts off with a casting meeting in the high-security wing at Rome's Rebibbia prison where every year, professional actors and directors create moving theater with murderers, Mafia capos and other hardened criminals as their actors. This year, well-known director Fabio Cavalli is putting on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a story of over-reaching ambition, betrayal, and brotherhood- not unlike the environment many of his “actors” come from. As Cavalli puts the prisoners, many serving life terms, through their paces, they grow into their parts, transformed by the experience and the surprising relevance of ancient Rome to their lives today in a Roman prison.

The casting is brilliant. From the clownish seer to the regal Caesar, the prisoners seem to be mining their own lives for their characters. Caesar is played by Giovanni Arcuri, a member of organized crime, as we are told at the outset. He is joined by others, many Camora or Mafia, many in for life without parole. Their looks and their accents, often regional, grow on you. These are, after all, the sons of the Roman Empire, in looks and speech, living in the shadows of the great monuments and great men that held sway over much of the known world for centuries.

It is not a connection that is lost on them. As the various scenes are rehearsed throughout the prison, the prisoner actors delve into their parts. “These people are us!” exclaims one. “These sound like people I know in Naples!”

The Taviani’s unerring eye for composition leads to increasingly visually intense scenes as the rehearsals for the play move from a simple room to Caesar’s death at the hand of his adopted son, Brutus, rehearsed in the prison courtyard, witnessed by the inmates of the prison. Color is used sparingly as if to create a demarcation between freedom and incarceration.

What gives the film its unexpected punch is the subtle shift it leads both the audience and the actors through. As the prisoner/actors recreate a story whose values of honor, and loyalty resonate with their experiences, they slowly rediscover their humanity- and, to some extent- an internal liberation and redemption through art.

Said Vittorio Taviani in an interview, “these compatriots of ours are tragic figures, really. They know crime and conspiracy, so let’s let them tell the tragedy of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, which is an Italian story, a Roman story that’s part of the collective imagination of the Italian people.”

It is a telling whose poignant ending will haunt you long after the final credits roll.

"Cesare deve morire" screens Thursday, March 13 at 7 pm at the La Paloma Theatre, 471 S. Coast Hwy. 101, Encinitas, CA 92024

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