Each year the inmates of Rome’s high security Rebibbia prison, incarcerated mostly for Mafia-related crimes, put on a play. The Taviani brothers follow the rehearsals and performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. When the performance ends, the lights dim on the actors and they become prisoners once again as they are accompanied back to their cells.
Cassius, one of the main characters, one of the best actors has been in prison for many years, but tonight his cell feels different, hostile. He remains still. Then he turns, looks into the camera and tells us: Since I have discovered art, this cell has turned into a prison?
At the Cannes Film Festival, the Taviani Brothers won the Palme dâOr for Padre Padrone in 1977 and the Grand Prix du Jury for La Notte di San Lorenzo in 1982. They were awarded the Golden Lion for their entire career at the Venice Film Festival in 1986. Caesar Must Die is their latest film, a blend of documentary and fiction that was awarded the Golden Bear at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival.
Could you tell us the story of this project?
Thanks to a phone conversation with a dear friend of ours we got in contact with a universe that we knew only through American films.
On our first visit [to Rebibbia], the gloomy atmosphere of a life behind bars had given way to the energy and the frenzy of a cultural and poetic event: the inmates were reciting some of Danteâs Inferno cantos.
Their instinctual acting was animated by the dramatic urge to tell the truth. We immediately realized that we wanted to know more about them and their situation; so we paid a second visit and asked them if they wanted to work for a cinematic adaptation of Julius Caesar? by William Shakespeare.
Did the auditions takes place exactly as we saw in the film?
For some years we have adopted a quite simple but extremely effective method: we ask the actors to identify themselves, as if they were being interrogated by customs officials; then we ask them to say goodbye to somebody they love, telling them that the first time they have to show pain and the second rage.
We told them that for the sake of privacy and if they wished to, they could have provided us with phoney names; we have been extremely impressed when all of them insisted on being truthful.
After a while we came up to the conclusion that for them the film could become a way to remind all the people living outside that they were leading their lives in the silence of the prison.
Did you follow the screenplay or you resorted to improvisation as if you were shooting a documentary?
With all due respect for Shakespeare (who has always been a father, a brother and then â as we grew older? a son for us), we have taken over his Julius Caesar?, dismembered and rebuilt it. We have certainly kept the spirit of the original tragedy as well as the narrative but at the same time we simplified it and tried to construct that audiovisual organism that we call film, which is the degenerate son of all the arts that have preceded cinema.
To make myself clear I would like to mention just an example: the soothsayer, the Neapolitan Pazzariello? who brings his open palm to the nose and with disquieting jests tells the audience to be silent, was not in the screenplay.
However, he reminded us one of the many crazy characters of Shakespeare, a Yorick for instance, who has run away from his tragedies. It was almost a tribute and a wish by that genius to all of us.
Why did you choose Shakespeare Julius Caesar?
Our choice came out of necessity: the men we wanted to work with had a past â far or close â to reckon with; a past characterized by misdeeds, faults, offences, crimes and broken relationships. Hence we had to confront them with an
equally powerful story going in the opposite direction.
And in this version we bring to the screen the great and the pitiable relationships among human beings that include friendship, betrayal, power, freedom and doubt. And murder, too. Several of our inmatesâ?actors once were âmen of honourâ?; and in his arraignment Mark Antony quotes the âmen of honourâ?.
On the day we shot the killing of Caesar, we asked our daggerâ?armed actors to find the same killer urge within them. A second later we realized what we had just said and we wished we could withdraw our words. But that wasnât necessary because they were the first ones to reckon the necessity to face reality.
Could you explain why you have decided to have the characters talk in the different dialects of the inmates?
One particular morning, in a larger cell we found out something that had us laugh out of amazement and complicity: six or seven inmates sitting around a table reading a text placed at the centre of the table.
We later found out that the text was our screenplay and those men were our actors who were translating their lines into their respective dialects, that is Neapolitan, Sicilian, Apulian with the help of other compatriots â who had not been cast for the film.
We were extremely and happily surprised to hear Prospero and Ariel squabbling in Neapolitan, or Romeo and Polonius whispering, shouting and cursing in Sicilian, or Apulian… We realized that the dialectal mispronunciation of the lines did not belittle the high tone of the tragedy, but on the contrary lent those lines a new truth. And deeper connection through a common language and followed more easily the unwinding of the drama, that in Shakespeare has always had a popular side, too.
Which have been â if any â the main production and artistic challenges?
We suspended shooting only when the inmates of the other wards had to pass through the corridors to go out in the yard, to go to the showers or when some of our actors had to move for the meetings with their relatives. When they came back they were deeply touched, moved, gloomy or crossed. They went back to acting but their gazes were floating far away, they had lost the wild and tender spontaneity of their acting.
A film set is a place where friendships and complicity thrive and this film was no exception. One of the wardens had mumbled to us: âDonâtâ get too close to them; I have excellent relationships with them, and sometimes I also feel some mercy and compassion, even friendship… But then I have to impose to myself to keep at distance and to think about those who have suffered and who suffer more than them, that is the victims of their crimes and their familiesâ¦â?
This is true but nevertheless, when the film was completed and we left the jail and our actors, it was a heartbreaking goodbye.
CAESAR MUST DIE, a film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani Opens In Cinemas 1 Mar 2013