On the face of it, CAESAR MUST DIE might seem a little off-putting: a docu-drama about a bunch of inmates in a maximum security prison, who stage a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Devotees of theatre and film might well find it to be movie heaven. This astonishing film is a gripping, tender, enlightening and optimistic exploration of the power of creativity, especially in theatre, and of the timeless themes of loyalty and integrity that make Shakespeare’s work so relevant to now.
CAESAR MUST DIE begins not at the beginning but at the final scene of Julius Caesar, which is greeted by thunderous applause from the audience (who are they? Families? Friends? Extras? Not critics – these people are cheering). Then the colour switches to monochrome and we are back six months prior to the show. The director pitches the play to the inmates, auditions proceed and rehearsals begin. The extended audition segment cleverly introduces the men’s characters: some comic, some emotional, others aggressive. This must have been retrospectively staged for the camera, but it still works as an insight into these people’s lives.
Shakespeare was the master of deception, guile and double-crossing, so why should CAESAR MUST DIE be any different?
As rehearsals develop and the men are drawn further into the story, the camera roams around the prison and the action pervades the building. Everyone seems to be involved, whether as actors or part of the rabble (Globe groundlings?). It is orchestrated, but the Tavianis manage to retain a believable spontaneity. We can believe we are watching a ‘truth’: Will Shakespeare would have approved.
Many critics note that it’s hard to know what is ‘real’ and what isn’t, that maybe CAESAR MUST DIE isn’t as honest as it could or should be. So what? Shakespeare was the master of deception, guile and double-crossing, so why should CAESAR MUST DIE be any different? Ex-inmate Salvatore Striano, who has since leaving prison become a professional actor, plays Brutus; adding another layer of complexity. His talent raises the acting bar, which pays off for the non-pros.
In the closing scenes the actors take their bows and the audience erupts, but prison life must resume. Just imagine the sound of the cell door closing behind you after a six-month experience that has allowed you real creative freedom, in a play that resonates across centuries and is still shockingly relevant today. Regular actors would have had a post-show party, but these men return to their solitary cells, alone with their thoughts: once liberated through imagination, they are now truly imprisoned. Powerful stuff indeed.