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Cesare deve morire

I despise Reality TV, with its contrived, simplistic, forced drama and its skillfully-edited Frankenmoments. Most of all, I hate its sham claims to reality. Reality-TV-- at least, its worst incarnations-- pretends its storylines unfold without manipulation or contrivance. It also maintains the pretense that since we're watching real people, we should accept the most idiotic and uninteresting of developments as somehow meaningful, and more meaningful than scripted drama.1

But real drama, good drama, involves careful observation of human nature, and careful crafting of characters and plot. It can be true or meaningful in its essence, even if it never happened. Real drama doesn't even have to be realistic. It can feature fantastic creatures or contrived realities. William Shakespeare's plays feature stylized plots, exaggerated characters, and artificial language. They've lasted centuries, in part because their poetic language and artificial people still speak to recognizable human concerns.

In 2012, aging directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani brought some of the techniques of reality TV to an Italian production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The film begins at curtain call, and then flashes back to auditions, held within the walls of Rome's Rebibbia Penetentiary. With the cast selected, we follow the development of the play, gradually seeing, through bits of rehearsals and fragments of final performances, most of the original. And while the filmmakers received unprecedented access to real inmates, the film acknowledges its artifice. Sometimes we're watching the prisoners acting Shakespeare; sometimes we're watching real drama caught by the cameras, and sometimes, we're watching the cast playing themselves, performing events and conversations that might have happened during the process. By the end, it doesn't matter. We’re watching Shakespeare, and we're seeing the relevance of a Renaissance drama about a Roman ruler to the lives of killers, drug dealers, Mafiosi, and Camorristi.

The choice of play is obvious enough. These men, sentenced to years in prison (in some cases, life), bear more than a passing resemblance to the characters in Shakespeare's historical drama, which deals with people plotting and carrying out a killing. The actors know about betrayal and vengeance and treachery and murder.

Giovanni Arcuri as Cesare exerts a strong sense of menace and power, even when he isn't speaking. He looks remarkably like James Gandolfini, but tougher, worn, and far more frightening. This man ran his world by force, and that world brought him down.

Even the bit-part poor players prove worth watching. Francesco Carusone does a bizarre turn as the soothsayer. I had to wonder how much of the craziness he brought to the role is an act.

Probably the strongest performance, however, comes from an actual actor. Salvatore Striano, who plays Brutus, left prison in 2006 and has pursued a career on stage and screen. He certainly knows the experiences of his fellow colleagues, but he doesn't have to live incarcerated anymore. We have a strange kind of method acting here, but something that comes from a different place than the film's other performances.

The film's fragmented story-telling draws out the intensity of Shakespeare's plot, while adding twists of its own. The men recall events from their life that resemble the story they're performing. At one point, scripted words of betrayal create an actual conflict.

At other moments, the actors realize through their experience what they missed about humanity, what they may still be missing. We see the human side of these men, without losing sight of what kind of men they are. They have seen and done terrible things, and they carry their deeds like Jacob Marley's chains.

The stage production remains simple throughout, with rehearsals happening in places around the prison, filmed mainly in black and white. Performers use the most elementary props and set pieces. Caesar's costume resembles a bedsheet toga.

The film ends with the cast taking bows before an appreciative crowd. The performers act like excited children after the school play. Then the audience departs and the actors return to their cells. Heavy doors shut behind them. The sound echoes.

Cesare deve morire won the Golden Bear at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival.

1. I knew someone who was on one of those shows, a Canadian bridal-themed one. The bride drove a golf cart out to where her husband was playing and interrupted his game over a minor issue, not because anyone would ever do that, but because the creatives behind the show thought it would make good television. The person I knew, a bridesmaid, had to deal with the bride spontaneously deciding to hold up a tacky dress and claim it was the one she had to wear in her friend's bridal party, so really, she should'’t complain about whatever the bridesmaids had to wear this time around. Of course, it wasn't the actual dress and, so far as anyone knew, the producers didn't stage this a development. But if you're on one of these things, you know what the producers are looking for.

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