I hope that some people, going back home after seeing our film, would think that even a convict, above whom towers a terrible punishment, is and remains a man. And this is thanks to the immortal works of Shakespeare”. With these words, at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, 163 years together, reacted to their Golden Bear victory for Cesare deve morire (Cesare must die, i.e.).
Fresh and bold as if they were making their debut, the brothers of Italian cinema, known for literary dramas such as The Night of the Shooting Stars and Father and Master, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1970, venture into a hostile place, prison, to recreate Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar on the part of a group of high-security inmates from the Rebibbia prison in Rome.

We make films for our nightmares. When you live your own dramas, and those of others, on a personal level, there’s a moment in which they become an alarming inquiry: from that breeding ground arrives the spirit of the story, something magical, that you would like to tell, or even be told by others. If we don’t send forth strong, clear, and violent emotions, we aren’t making films. We lived this kind of emotion when we went to see the plays recited by the inmates. We were wary… we thought they would be at an amateur level of performance, but we didn’t yet know the director Fabio Cavalli, who has been working with them for ten years. Instead, we were left completely blown away and deeply moved.

Thus, the short periods of “out-of-cell time” and the brawn of the Rebibbia prison are transformed into an absurd set where the two directors, always out-of-line with mass culture cinema, felt at ease to dismember a very complex theatrical text that talks about friendship, betrayal, crimes, power and freedom, and to reconstruct it with some twists through the amateur recitation of the inmates, many of whom have, themselves, lived the experiences they were acting. “A story, that of Julius Caesar – directors say -, which contains instinctual urges, feelings, conspiracy, blood and betrayal… all things that, for many actors, have represented daily life, and so they aren’t unfamiliar to these types of feelings. Some things said by them have a truly different meaning.

With regard to the black and white segments, certainly not a novelty to cinema, the directors put their trust in the task of combining the detainee actor with the character to be interpreted, almost wanting to find traces of a past, distant or near, of fault, of slighted values, and of broken human relations. “When we were reciting tragic and dramatic moments, their strength came not only from simple talent, but from the fact that they were aware of what they were saying… there were dramatic past experiences that came out from their expressions, there was truth, and in that moment you felt that they were human beings that we should all respect.

The result is extraordinary and catches one off guard: an original and bold film that casts a sinister light on the fragilities and miseries of humankind, reflected in the dark existence of the condemned. “And yet the Italian cinema companies didn’t believe in this film – tells Paolo. Many saw our work and no one wanted it… Nanni Moretti, however, told us “yes” right away.
But we shouldn’t forget the pain brought about by the prisoners, – echoes Vittorio. Being around the inmates every day, the border between “us and them” became blurred and there was an atmosphere of complicity and intense affection, so much so that the prison guards felt it necessary to remind us that although we may feel pity and friendship for the incarcerated, that compassion should also go to their victims and to their families.
And then there’s the catastrophic situation of the Italian prison system – as Ascanio Celestini also reminds us in his latest Pro Patria -, where the illusion that art is truly capable of changing the world is framed in the last line of the film by a prisoner, Cosimo Rega: “Since I discovered art, this cell seems to me like a prison.

text by Monica Straniero
photo portraits by Rosa Mariniello for DROME magazine

Cesare deve morire
A film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani
Sacher Distribuzione (Italy), 2012