Copyright ©2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

In 1977, former Italian journalists Paolo and Vittorio Taviani were internationally acclaimed for their drama "Padre Padrone" which was made for TV but released in theaters around the world. Their film "The Night of the Shooting Stars" brought more honors. But it's been 15 years since their last theatrical feature. Now comes "Caesar Must Die," a fictionalized look at real-life prisoners rehearsing Shakespeare behind bars. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In the early '80s, Italy's Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, made one of the true modern masterpieces, "The Night of the Shooting Stars." It was set in the last days of World War II, when Germans laid mines all over Tuscan villages and Fascists loyal to Mussolini killed their own countrymen. It was very cruel.

But unlike, say, the more recent "Pan's Labyrinth" - where I found the violence bludgeoning - the movie was leavened by scenes of erotic passion, of farce, of transcendence that gestured to a world beyond the atrocities. The Tavianis never did anything quite like "The Night of the Shooting Stars" again. In the last decade, they've made TV movies I confess I didn't see. But their newest film, "Caesar Must Die," is absolutely amazing.

It's barely an hour and a quarter, and physically small-scale, but it's so compressed it wears you out - in a good way. Any attempt to summarize the plot is bound to make it seem reductive, rather than something that enlarges your sense of what's possible onscreen. But here goes.

"Caesar Must Die" is set in a maximum-security prison on the outskirts of Rome, where a group of prisoners - some lifers, some murderers, most organized-crime members - rehearse and perform a production of "Julius Caesar." This isn't a documentary, though it's reality-based.

The brothers were inspired by a prison production of Dante's "Divine Comedy," and they went back to the facility - it's called Rebibbia - to work with resident theater director Fabio Cavalli, who plays himself onscreen. The actors are all convicts, though some have served their sentences.

The movie begins with the final scenes of the performance before an invited civilian audience. It goes very well. Then the Tavianis shift from color to a more stark and somber black and white, flashing back to the auditions and rehearsals. The prisoners rehearse in corridors, in their cells, and in the concrete courtyard on which windows look down, so inmates and guards can watch the action like real spectators in ancient Rome.

Almost at once the actors seem to merge with their roles - and they're so good, so in character - that suddenly we're watching the play itself, "Julius Caesar," abridged and of course in Italian but with a vividness I've never seen - and I've seen the play onstage three times, with big-deal stars.

There are interruptions in which reality intrudes: a forgotten line, a suggestion from the director, even instances when an actor breaks off to reflect on the connections between his characters' dilemma and his own past.

The inmates instantly comprehend the play's stakes - the power struggles, the lies, the betrayals and backstabbing, the recourse to violence - which they perform with a palpable sense of regret. As the play's Brutus broods on the magnitude of his crime, the actor, Salvatore Striano, seems to be weighing every unwise and irreversible decision he has ever made.

What comes of all this? You're inside the play and then outside, immersed and then distanced, until where you literally are - in prison watching actors or in ancient Rome watching conspirators plot to assassinate a head of state - doesn't matter. It's a heightened space unlike any I've seen onscreen. The Tavianis dissolve every artistic boundary they meet.

The brothers are in their 80s now, and with age, artists often work in a simpler style. But what the Tavianis have achieved with this newfound simplicity is a work that's rich and expansive. At the end of "Caesar Must Die," the prisoners must go back to their cells, while we get to go home. But for a spell, together, through the magic of Shakespeare's drama, we soar.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.