Thursday, October 11, 2012

Caesar Must Die (2012) New York Film Festival

When I was studying for a semester abroad in London during my junior year in college (bear with me, this story does go somewhere), I was able to see, for astonishing student cheap rates, a lot of theater every week, and a lot of that was Shakespeare. This was 1983: the Royal Shakespeare Company had just opened their season at the spanking-brand-new Barbican Center, where they were able to offer several rotating plays. The National Theatre had been in its new home on the South Bank and offered a series of live plays on three distinct stages of different size and configuration. I saw some grand (and a few not-so-great) performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 (with Patrick Stewart as Henry IV and Timothy Dalton as Hotspur), and, at the RSC's base in Stratford, Julius Caesar. It was thanks to this total immersion in the plays of Mister Shakespeare that I became even more of a devout fan than I had been, and study of the Bard, his works and contemporaries became field of study in undergraduate and graduate school.

Still naïve and young then in 1983, however, I asked my drama professor why companies modernized Shakespeare. Why were productions of these Elizabethan area plays produced in later historical, or even modern drag? He gave me one of the most important lessons I've learned in college or after: "You tell me." He set this for me as my final term paper and opened doors for me at theater companies and production offices. I dug into the productions we'd seen, but traditional and contemporary, watched films of Shakespeare's plays: my first exposure to Peter Hall's amazingly way-out A Midsummer Night's Dream, Roman Polanski's Macbeth and Orson Welles's bafflingly brilliant Chimes at Midnight I'll spare you the length of my final paper and sum up the conclusion succinctly: Shakespeare is of the ages. His words and characters speak to our times as well as his own. Through modernized set design or post-Elizabethan historical costuming his stories become more than just a comment on the sixteenth century. Since then I've seen dozens of Shakespeare productions in this mode and come to love them: a later RSC production of As You Like It updated to the Edwardian era, Akira Kurosawa's Japanese Lear in Ran, Kenneth Branagh's bubbly and infectious Much Ado, Ralph Fiennes's brilliant Coriolanus as modern war tragedy, and the BBC's recent series of modernized Shakespeare Retold, especially the Damien Lewis/Sarah Parish newsroom re-setting of Much Ado About Nothing, with Billie Piper playing Hero as a weathergirl. Purists may scoff. I believe Shakespeare, however, would have loved it. His plays were for his audiences, to enjoy and laugh and cry, and if they weren't careful, they may just have learned something. We still do that today.

Which finally brings me to this grand re-imagining of Julius Caesar, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's powerfully innovative Caesar Must Die. 1983 me might have been puzzled by it. 2012 me was captivated. We're among a group of prisoners in a high-security Italian prison. As they do each year, they're preparing to produce and act in a play, and we see Julius Caesar come to life as they rehearse in the cells, hallways, and yards of this grey concrete prison. The rehearsals present the events of the play in chronological order, in stark black-and-white—the Tavianis only use color for a wrapping sequence that presents the actual performance. They clown about, egos clash, they make breakthroughs. The director encourages them to play this in their own Italian dialects. Prison guards comment like a Greek chorus on the action and the characters. They take the events of Caesar and apply it to their own situations and lives. The text reminds one prisoner too much of his life outside, and he's morose and irritable. This is Shakespeare not only as drama but as a play itself; the microcosm of a closed community that mirrors the events of the drama. Is the prison Julius Caesar's stagnant Rome? Is Rome a prison?

The Tavianis's direction and design is majestic; the prison is more impressive and expressive than any stage. We come to know these men through an innovative technique: as they audition for their roles, they give their names and family histories in two different ways: defiant and despondent. It's brilliant shorthand for introducing us to the prisoners as players; their personalities and strengths are "on stage" immediately before us, even for such guarded men as these. You would say that this is the a brilliant portrayal of actors as prisoners, but... These aren't actors. These men actually are prisoners, and the annual drama production is a real-life program. What looks like a documentary is more powerful that we know (from the first, so I've misled you a bit) that these are real prisoners, in a true jail. The Tavianis's film is not a documentary—they given a fictional script to surround the events—but all the actors are playing themselves. And they are absolutely brilliant. I've told you previously about my so-far-favorite film of the New York Film Festival (Life of Pi), the most thought-provoking (Something in the Air), and the most beguiling story (Barbara). Caesar Must Die takes it for me in the Performance category, especially Salvatore Striano (Brutus) and Cosimo Rega (Cassius). They moved me to genuine laughter and freely-weeped tears, more than Branagh or Olivier or Barrymore.

When the company stands, shoulder to shoulder at the curtain call of their performance, there's great jubilation, infectious wide smiles and laughter, backslapping camaraderie and pride. Then, they're locked up in their cells again. Shakespeare and Rome is the only freedom they will have. "Since I got to know art," one of the prisoners says, "this cell has become a prison." Ironic how it opens our world for us too. Truly, Shakespeare is for the ages. Even fifteen to twenty-five years, or life.

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