The Tavianis Illuminate Reality through Theater

Compartive Literature classes were never as exhilarating as the best parts of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die. This ingenious adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, combines documentary and drama as the Tavianis follow theater director Fabio Cavalli guiding a couple dozen convicts through a production of the play staged in Italy’s Rebbibia Prison.

As always, the Tavianis (best known for the modernist neo-realism films Padre Padrone and Night of the Shooting Stars) combine artifice and naturalism. This prismatic approach illuminates Shakespeare, cinema and life. The concept shows convicts utilizing the amount of existential acting that comprises their street and prison yard lives, their behavior as men, sons, pals, citizens. The Tavianis interpret Julius Caesar’s political conflict (a tyrannical leader assassinated by fellow politicians) for more than facile contemporary allegory; they reveal its insight into basic human interaction and masculine aggression.

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This thesis is made endlessly fascinating by the prisoners’ real-life spectacle. Brutus’s recitation hesitates at reality’s contrast; its vulgarity and absurdity trouble him freshly–as it does a viewer. The Tavianis’ moral clarity provides fleet, astonishingly reflection. Two convicts, Gianni and Juan, get so caught up in their personal rivalries while acting that we respond to their conflict as to HBO’s prison series Oz (especially those memorable episodes about putting a play). These faces suggest hardened versions of actorly visages. There’s a tough Derek Jacobi, a corpulent Louis Calhern, while others suggest the same Italo ethnic types made cartoonishness by The Sopranos and GoodFellas. It’s abstract yet it gives soulfulness to a political and social perspective that transcends being Brechtian. Sometimes the humor resembles the prison scenes in Big Deal on Madonna Street, that authentic Italian comedy about petty crooks.

Because the Taviani brothers use dialectical methods, their visual and conceptual ideas alternate (color/b&w, theater/reality) without always merging comprehensively. Yet, their ambiguous whole avoids the banality predictability of some of the Dardennes brothers films. This is an intellectual modernization of Shakespeare that West Side Story sold out in favor of popular  appeal. The men’s discovery of theater is moving. As the movie slips past the obvious strictures of incarceration and gets caught up in the emotional space of rehearsal and the individual inmates’ personal transformations, a sense of illusion comes from temporary suspension of disbelief–very much like Louis Malle achieved in Vanya on 42nd Street, but richer.

Many of the actors are surprisingly good–passionate and credible.  Cavelli encourages their naturalism: “It’s not a vulgar dialect, it’s a dialect in the mouth of noble characters.” They discover the cultural heritage that they had squandered–and you can feel it. The Tavianis’ spartan, mostly b&w visual style contrasts “performance” with reality, a complex move in the era of Reality TV where all notions of truth, fiction and cinema verite have been corrupted if not destroyed.

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The Tavianis are admirably minimalist, but sometimes cinema calls for theater, some all around phenomenological fascination with the reality of prison as a place pf confinement. The most conventional cinematic excitement comes when the Taviani’s zoom in and begin introducing information about the men’s crimes and sentences. The amount of Taviani’s control is perplexing but it beats Reality TV fakery by admitting the harsh truth beneath the overall artifice–and the potential beauty. When the men ponder “How many centuries to come will see actors play this great scene of ours?” Or muse about “Kingdoms and languages yet to be invented,” the terms may not exactly express the thoughts of convicts but it’s poetry nonetheless and nothing in Dustin Hoffman’s self-satisfied opera diva film Quartet or Malle’s Chekhov caprice can touch it.

Do-gooder programs that bring hiphop into prisons cannot possibly be this effective. Marc Antony delivering his famous speech in a concrete basketball court tells us the classical arts are not dead but can elevate contemporary self-esteem. This helps illuminate the most mundane aspects of taken-for-granted life. When Cassius (Cosimo Rega) walks back into his quarters, he admits “Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison.” Rehabilitation? The Tavianis turn insight into a powerful act of compassion.

 

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