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'Caesar' Comes Alive In An Italian Prison

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In the early '80s, Italy's Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, made one of the true modern masterpieces, The Night of the Shooting Stars. 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 a very cruel film.

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 past 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 himself 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.

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