You've never seen "Julius Caesar" like this.
Shakespeare's classic play has been staged in all sorts of settings and time periods. For all I know, it's even been set in a prison before.
But as Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's "Caesar Must Die" unfolds with a bleak, beautiful urgency, it becomes more than just another innovative Shakespeare experience. Part documentary and part adaptation, it thrusts the audience into a world in which actors -- all prisoners in an Italian maximum-security penitentiary -- bring an entirely new sense of authenticity to their roles.
The film, which plays today only at the Tower Theatre, is the monthly presentation of Fresno Filmworks.
Part of the footage is from the actual prison production of "Julius Caesar" staged for the general public. That's how we first meet the woeful Brutus in his climactic death scene. The flat colors and even lighting prepare the viewer for an inherently theatrical experience.
Then, however, there's an abrupt shift in tone. We're back at the prison itself, first for auditions, then for rehearsals. The film slips into blistering black and white, with harsh shadows and brash highlights delineating the stained concrete world of the prisoners.
Key scenes are rehearsed in strategic locations. A room with a window overlooking the prison courtyard becomes the place where Brutus and Cassius ponder getting rid of Caesar, the jangle of men's voices outside serving as the Roman crowd offering a crown to the great general. A walled exercise yard becomes the setting for the assassination.
We learn some about the prisoners as well -- not all that much, but enough to add even more texture to the experience. These men have been convicted of heavy crimes, including murder and drug trafficking, yet their humanity starts to show through.
Although the prison setting is harsh, the film is often stunningly beautiful. (The "I come to bury Caesar" speech, held in the empty courtyard with the prisoners stuffed into every available window ringing it, is a piercing visual.) As the camera burrows in close on various characters, exposing every rough-shaven imperfection, even the stray hairs on the back of their necks seem to gleam.
Salvatore Striano, as Brutus, stands out. There's a vacancy in his eyes that gives him a grizzled, hypnotic presence, and a sadness there, too. (Wait until the end to learn his real-life story: It's inspiring.)
I'm sure there are many -- particularly in the U.S. -- who would scoff at giving prisoners the chance to act. But "Caesar Must Die" reminds us that art isn't linked to morality. The spark it gives these men's lives is profound. So is the hole left when they're separated from it.
"Caesar Must Die," unrated. Stars Cosimo Rega, Salvatore Striano, Giovanni Arcuri. Directed by Vittorio Tavlani. Running time: 76 minutes, in Italian with English subtitles. Grade: A- | Other movie reviews
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