"Ever since I became acquainted with art, this cell became a prison."
Considering this is how the film ends, there seems to be a hollowing incompleteness that remains impenetrable. Paolo Taviani himself said he wanted viewers to "say to themselves or even those around them...that even a prisoner with a dreadful sentence, even a life sentence, is and remains a human being." But limiting Caesar to a tale of paralleled characterization doesn't do the film justice. There's an effort to attain a more depressing realization that extends beyond the closing credits and combines these men's "Julius Caesar" personas with their life sentences in prison. There is indeed more subtext to Caesar Must Die than meets the eye, and going beyond the well-storied relationship between imprisonment and rising against the governmental system is where we'll find the film's heart and driving message.
The Taviani brothers may have been inspired by Jafar Panahi's This is Not a Film, which is also a staged episode of imprisonment. For Panahi it's happening in real time and illegally, as he is under house arrest and banned from making films in Iran, but in a way it's the same for the inmates of Caesar Must Die. This is Not a Film is a loose, improvised mockumentary and Caesar is tightly scripted, yet both are very real and completely aware of the political and humanistic implications of their approaches. But, in particular, it's how the films are shot, broken down, and carried out in the final act that ultimately define how debilitating prison life can be.
Directors/Writers: Paolo and Vittorio Taviani
Cesare: Giovanni Arcuri
Bruto: Salvatore Striano
Cassio: Cosimo Rega
Marcantonio: Antonio Frasca
Decio: Juan Dario Bonetti
Also worth mentioning: some dude named William Shakespeare
What It's Good For:
-a completely original take on Shakespeare
-fans of prison films
-fans of isolation films
-incredible acting from no-name actors
-you don't like "reading movies" (*face palm*)
-you don't like black and white movies (*head slam*)
-you...don't like bleak films? fuck it
Panahi—dealing with limited space under house arrest—was forced to work with his surroundings during a four-day window for This is Not a FIlm. Key pieces of imagery had to be utilized because of this, and Panahi makes convenient use of his slithering pet: a lagging iguana slowly maneuvers around the apartment, inching its way toward yet another border as it meanders aimlessly, recreating the confined space in which Panahi struggles to find artistic inspiration.
Caesar doesn't have an iguana, but creating this sense of entrapment is done through the presence of rehearsal. In the way the iguana circles the apartment—running into walls, maneuvering through bookshelves, and clawing on Panahi's shirt—the actors performing "Julius Caesar" circle themselves, searching for inspiration in relation to their paralyzing environment. In particular, our main character playing the main character, Bruto (Salvatore Striano), audibly discusses his inability to capture the emotion behind a certain line:
"If only I could tear out Caesar's spirit without cutting open his chest."
This particular line proves troublesome because, outside the prison walls, Bruto recalls a friend saying this exact line "differently", yet "identically." In terms of dealing with one's past, this section of the play bothers Bruto because of how strikingly the moment recalls his long lost friend. The friend was overheard calling Bruto a "nobody", which had stuck with Bruto until this very day. The tearing of the spirit is depicted as much more gruesome and detrimental—a resounding parallel to the moment when Bruto finally betrays Cesare (Giovanni Arcuri). Blood is indeed spilled, yet it is Bruto who suffers the greatest, dealing with the pain and regret of betrayal. This explains Bruto's pain in remembering the friend he'd spitefully lost contact with. We witness Bruto dealing with this regret while performing "Julius Caesar" twice. Once is during the beginning of the film, where we are ignorant of these men's criminal histories, and one post-rehearsal, with countless self-realizations nestled comfortably in the recent past.
Bruto's out-of-character recollection during rehearsal works in relation to the play, but with the power of stage and theater on display, it becomes a crippling meta moment in Bruto's prison life. Even more treacherous is the fact that this revelation takes place within the monotonous black-and-white frame of rehearsal—not the bloody red-hued stage that opens wide to an audience. In this sense, Caesar Must Die becomes much more about the preparation than the performance—finding the inspiration in the depressing confines of a monochrome environment, rather than when the true pretending occurs. Once the play begins, there comes no time to reflect. So during the preparation, that final line resonates without even being heard: this is where inspiration is found—this is where inspiration is crushed.
For while Bruto's lines hold the same symbolic relation once performing on stage, the rehearsal allows for improvisation, the questioning of one's motifs (both in and out of character), and the allowance of existential clarification. In their black and white cells, the actors don black shirts and jeans accompanied by massive black belts and thick knives. It's Shakespeare with "fucks", varying dialects, and life-timers candidly noting: "It seems to me this Skakespeare lived on the streets." Timeless literature becomes poetic trash in rehearsal, where Cesare can suddenly step outside his role and react vehemently to the Decio's line, "I'm saying this to you as a friend."
"As a friend?" Cesare responds. "As a liar. As an arse-licker. As a shameless man."
This line is the result of a bubbling rivalry that suddenly comes to fruition, to the point where Cesare the prisoner calls out Decio's trash-talking—all of which is very reminiscent to the constant intertwined gossiping and power plays that lead to Cesare's death. Suddenly the rehearsal stops and conflicts surface. Not once before then did Cesare own the indecent sense to rise against his counterpart, but with the bubbling hate that lurks beneath "Julius Caesar" and motivates its characters, reality is brought forth during a moment of pretend.
In This is Not a Film, Panahi attempts to recreate the final film that was stripped away from him before being detained by the Iranian government. He lays out tape to create a room and takes turns playing the various parts until he becomes defeated, like many of his written characters often do. Suddenly he steps back and makes a blunt realization:
“If we could tell a film, why make a film?”
But for Bruto, the sudden questioning of his friend's loyalty becomes a distant nagger of the mind. For Cesare, his outburst keeps in line with inability to disguise his true identity outside of a character who bears a striking parallel to his imprisoned life. Characters constantly assess their stage characters' motifs and strategies, asking questions like, "Think about these poor fools that are about to kill their leader. And what do they do? They debate over where the Sun rises." But of course the Sun isn't there, as they stare down yet another long, dank hallway. Panahi must step outside the film and narrate the events singlehandedly as he speaks to the camera—the characters of Caesar are both part of the message and the storytellers, performing their parts and lending the play's themes and motifs a symbolic relation to Caesar's exploration of imprisonment vs. freedom. Both are able to depict the soul-crushing realization of one's inability to escape the confines of prison in their final moments.
And the prison in both of these final frames is, of course, a prison of the mind. Outside the dialogue is where these connections are drawn more fluidly. Where Panahi uses his own body of work and the bustling world existing outside his window, the Tavianis use a balance of narrow and wide-open space, with an emphasis on lines and barriers that separate more than prison and the outside world.
There's a moment where Panahi projects his own Crimson Gold onto the television—a film exploring the claustrophobic pressures of a patriarchal Iranian society. Crimson Gold begins and ends with a suicide as a result, and with the paused grimace of Hussein juxtaposed snugly beside Panahi as he searches for answers, the power of containment couldn't be more pronounced. Hussein and Panahi both find themselves trapped within societal pressures and borders of the camera's relentless fixation—the very tool Panahi used for so long.
"Ever since I became acquainted with art, this cell became a prison."
For these men, in both Caesar Must Die and This is Not a Film, art is both the promise of beauty and the broadcast of ugliness; brimming with purpose and revealing of emptiness; the light at the end of the tunnel and the dark corner of the room. But with Panahi on his way out of the filmmaking business and these prisoners on their way in, art's rearing of its ugly head gains an suffocating impenetrability. For both, prison and art are suddenly combined, and the pursuit for greatness only becomes more and more eviscerating as the prison walls expand themselves around the mind. Caesar Must Die ends with a door being closed in full color, suddenly recalling the power of the moment in relation to a story that existed on detached timelines: the pursuit of art will continue, and so must the perseverance of the mind.
Absofruitly. It's my #2 film of 2013 at the moment (but what do I know, I love The Last Stand). It's easily one of the best prison films I've ever seen. The always reliable Taviani Bros. knock it out of the park with their direction, and the acting is just goddamn incredible.
I'll stop jerking off now. GO WATCH IT.