Tuesday, 13 November 2012

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Caesar Must Die - IFF 2012

Opinion: A-

An unlikely prize winner comes in Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Caesar Must Die, which embraces more than what it appears to feature. A dramatic rehearsal of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar by prison inmates effectively blurs the distinction between fact and fiction, while at the same time debating art's influence and value upon life. There is no better choice besides practicing art under prison's captivity, an enlightening path towards the true interpretation of freedom.

The theater in Rome's Rebibbia Prison. A performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar has just ended amidst much applause. The lights dim on the actors and they become prisoners once again as they are accompanied back to their cells. Six months earlier, the warden and a theater director speak to the inmates about a new project, the staging of Julius Caesar in the prison. Shakespeare's universal language helps the inmates-actors to identify with their characters. The path is long and full of anxiety, hope and play.

Who is Giovanni who plays Caesar? Who is Salvatore-Brutus? For which crimes have they been sentenced to prison? The film does not hide this.

On the anticipated but feared day of opening night, the audience is numerous and diversified: inmates, actors, students, directors. It's a success. The inmates return to their cells. Even "Cassius", one of the main characters, one of the best. He 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 known art, this cell has turned into a prison".

Already a highly acclaimed (it clinched the Golden Berlin Bear earlier this year and is also Italy's official entry to this year's Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film) work of cinema, it intrigues as it doesn't exude apparent qualities of an exceptional film. Caesar Must Die is indeed not a conventional film that would unanimously convince most opinions. Having 76 minutes of mostly rehearsal scenes of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, it is easy for one to dismiss this film as a plain documentary of some prison inmates' preparation for the play.

The selected prisoners who impressed at the audition continues to do so by devoting their time and effort as cast of the performing art. The camera observes the cast during various scenarios of impromptu rehearsals, almost to an extent of everywhere at any time. Staging Julius Caesar within a high security prison is indeed an interesting proposition by the Tavianis, particularly when they manage to identify apt location spots within the prison facility. For instance, the Roman Forum is reenacted within a prison courtyard. The aged prison walls further enhance the rustic feel until it seems almost more appropriate for the play to take place in the prison than in theatre.

Inevitably as the film progresses, one cannot easily determine when the cast is rehearsing and when they are not. Even during naps, one will be pleasantly surprised when they spring up enthusiastically just to rehearse their lines. Julius Caesar has proven its timeless relevance to even contemporary times, where people still fight for political freedom with cold-blood violence. It is somewhat chilling to observe the natural performance of the inmates playing as plotting schemers who eventually take Caesar's life. There are moments when they pause abruptly when enlightenment dawns upon them as to how much they relate themselves with the characters and events of Julius Caesar. Was the murder of the great Caesar indeed in the name of democracy and freedom? There is an implied thought provocation taking place within the minds of the inmates, with varying degrees of spiritual enlightenment and remorse. Keeping in mind that these are murderers and serious criminals who have been sentenced to long years behind bars, some even serving a life sentence.

Despite the claustrophobic environment within confined walls, art frees the minds of these inmates and enlightened them to a certain sense of peace and liberty. Never have they felt so alive while practicing performing art in consideration that they are after all prison inmates with freedom restriction. It is the film's intended thematic message that is later blatantly ensured with one of the inmates saying to the audience "Since I have known art, this cell has turned into a prison".

It wasn't a prison to them before Julius Caesar and it is only considered so at the end of the play after the final show is staged and the curtains drawn. The inmates subsequently return to their cells and a prior routine of confinement. It is here where they truly sense a loss of their freedom, as art influences minds and free people no matter where they are. Art frees the minds of the living and also prisoners' minds within prison. A side thought cannot help but query the justification of society's choice of punitive measures over art rehabilitation towards law-breakers.

Technically, the film is not any alluring and is essentially a collection of recorded footage of the prison. Not forgetting sub quality sound as well, which further renders the film as a piece of documentary filmmaking. Then again, with the ability to craft something so simple yet fulfilling transcends the superficial obvious and requires the dedicated vision of the Tavianis.

One of the better films of the year so far according to this opinion.


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