To be sure, the central conceit of Caesar Must Die, a hybrid documentary from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani in which convicts perform Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, is not as powerful as it ought to be. Sequences in which art imitates the lives of the prisoners are delivered plainly and without resonance, as when one performer says, upon delivering a line, that he had a vision of an old friend saying words that “were different, but the same.” Another inmate asks his fellow performers if they did not all know Caesars in their lives, and when Giovanni Arcuri, playing Caesar (and himself, of course), scrambles to be ready for a rehearsal and pulls his crew together just in time to deliver his first line, which makes reference to good timing the hammer hits the nail on the head a bit too hard. Life imitates art, particularly when the entire prison becomes a rehearsal set—a Sleep No More-esque way of doing what Francois Truffaut calls “ventilating the play.” If the entirety of the Caesar performance took place throughout the prison, with the “audience,” be it the other inmates, guards, or us viewers following particular characters and observing how the play relates to the dynamics at play in a high-security prison, it could be an enlightening reckoning on performance art and theatrical adaptation. Instead, these ideas are suggested but not fully explored.
Caesar Must Die’s inability to deliver on its most promising front makes it easy to dismiss, but there are other rewards for those who look beneath the central conceit. Most striking, the film has one of the richest and most beautiful black-and-white palettes to be shot digitally. In 2013, Noah Baumbach, Joss Whedon, and Alexander Payne tried their hand at digital B&W (although Baumbach shot color and altered his film, Frances Ha, in post-production) with varying results, but even the best of these films (Nebraska) did not find an entirely artful look. Nebraska looked good, and its cinematography certainly did not hurt it, but it was often more functional than expressionistic; colors were chosen to ensure a pleasant look, and the black and white itself tied to the film’s nostalgic themes more by being black and white than how it actually used it—a wise choice for the film, but certainly not beautiful on a shot-by-shot basis. With Caesar Must Die, which is in color only during its first and last scenes, as well as one shot in the middle of the film, the Tavianis and Simone Zampagni—a first time DP—have crafted, largely through their lighting, a beautiful black-and-white look. In a film that chooses to have its most dynamic and thought-provoking segments in black-and-white, this is crucial; if the look was not beautiful on its own, the easier decision would be to reverse the aesthetic—to color the dynamic rehearsals and artistic performance, only to return to the drab, black-and-white prison life. The Tavianis avoid the easy route, find a beautiful look in the process and in Zampagni’s talents, and breathe some fresh air into their film.
Caesar Must Die is also a good argument for the utilization of the arts in prison. These prisoners, some who have been behind bars for 20 years, many of whom will be there for life, are given something to live for, and we see them come out all the wiser for it. One man expresses regret at his dismissal of Shakespeare in school, and the heavy-handedness with which art parallels life in the film suggests that many more would likely extract a lot from great artworks, be they performers or readers, although it is not without its downside. Indeed, the final line of the film, after the performance and the return to the prison cell, is one performer stating, “Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison.” It’s too on the nose, but it’s a cruel, ironic note to end on after we watch prisoners argue about their nobility and cry for freedom.
The guards, too, are sympathetic with the performers, taking pleasure in viewing and even allowing the inmates to finish a scene rehearsal before they have to return to their cells, although this moment, as well as others in which performers glide in and out of their roles, are very likely scripted—so likely, that their power is often times reduced. Still, clumsiness and all, Caesar Must Die’s virtues ring loudest.