15-21 March 2013; DCA
Caesar Must Die is a film loosely based on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, performed by a mixture of actors and inmates from the high-security wing of Rome’s Rebibbia prison. The men are serving lengthy sentences, for crimes such as drug trafficking, involvement in the mafia, and murder. The film is shot in the style of a documentary, using “rehearsals” to produce the majority of Julius Caesar. This blurs the distinction between performance and reality; when we see a fight break out during a rehearsal, it is possible that the animosity between the two individuals in the performance is genuine.
The use of a prison as a framing device for the play works well, and echoes the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet, which also explored surveillance. Such a theme is of course particularly apt, for in a prison setting its effects are magnified: the prisoners have no privacy.
The film begins in colour, with the death of Brutus, and is then quickly transformed into black and white, to give the impression, perhaps, of episodes of memory. The black and white cinematography also gestures toward the surveillance of prisoners on CCTV. Much like the prison guards who observe their rehearsals with intrigue, we also observe their fights during rehearsal, or their determination to do a good job.
The sequences leading up to Brutus’s on-stage death are particularly gripping with the blurring of real life and theatrical performance: the requiems spoken over Caesar’s body outside are watched by prisoners from the prison windows. The scene of his death provides a fantastic example of mob mentality, with the prisoners initially supporting Brutus, but then quickly being swayed by Antony’s tactical rhetoric, especially his repetition of Brutus as a “man of honour”. This mirrors the 2011 film adaptation of Coriolanus, directed by Ralph Fiennes, where the crowd are manipulated by Brutus and Sicinius to turn against Coriolanus, despite having previously supported him. The use of mob behaviour in both these films again remind us why Shakespeare is still relevant; it also shows how easily people can be manipulated by rhetoric speech.
Caesar Must Die follows the characters in ‘rehearsals’ as they struggle with their lines, and also reflect on their own pasts and criminal offences. Marvelling that he once found this material boring in school, Cosimo Rega (who plays Cassius) comments: “It seems as if this Shakespeare was walking the streets of my own city”. Salvatore Striano, playing Brutus expresses an actor’s perennial struggle to make Shakespeare’s lines translate to more contemporary audiences; “I understand what Shakespeare meant”, he says, but how do I get it across to an audience?” Such scenes emphasise some of the difficulties actors face in performing Shakespeare. When Striano asks how he should get his lines across to an audience, one is reminded of Al Pacino remark, “What’s this thing that gets between us and Shakespeare?” In this sense, the film is reminiscent of Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard(1996), where the difficulties in performing Shakespeare are examined, and extra-textual scenes are intercut with a performance of Richard III. Caesar Must Die proves that Shakespeare can, of course, be performed by anyone, dispelling the myth that Shakespeare is ‘elitist’ and only appreciated by educated audiences.
The film ends as it began: in colour, on stage. As excited and happy both prisoners and their (theatrical and cinematic) audiences might be, these feelings are short lived: our elation at the successful performance is crushed as the prisoners are led back into their cells. Before making himself a cup of coffee, Cosimo Rega (Cassius) says to the camera “Since I have discovered art, this cell has turned into a prison”. If Rega’s words stress the importance of art and culture, Caesar Must Die shows two tragedies: that of Julius Caesar, and that of the inmates of Rebibbia prison.