Filmmaking brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani started making movies two decades after the heyday of Italian neo-realism, but the directors’ films have often shared both the style and concerns of neo-realist masters like Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti. The Tavianis have explored the lives of the poor and undesirable, in films that merge documentary grit with real cinematic flourish. Caesar Must Die is one of their most unusual projects. Part documentary, part performance film, Caesar Must Die follows a regional theater troupe as it rehearses and performs a production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The twist? The actors are all mob-tied drug dealers and murderers, serving time in prison. And the rehearsals—shot in stark black-and-white, unlike the final performance, which is shown in vivid color—take place in bare gray cells and barren courtyards and corridors, with the prisoners in plain clothing.
The other twist is that the “unrehearsed” interactions between the prisoners sound just as scripted as the Shakespeare dialogue. Periodically, the actors break character during the rehearsal and talk candidly about the ways Julius Caesar reflects their own lives in crime, but the tone doesn’t vary much between the lines from the play and the more confessional moments. The unflagging artifice takes some getting used to, and it’s easy to wonder how Caesar Must Die would’ve been had the Tavianis played it straighter, and let the prisoners speak for themselves in a more off-the-cuff way. After an early montage that shows the inmates doing an acting exercise—and then sitting still for beautifully lit portraits while the Tavianis list their crimes—it does seem like the movie is going to be more about who these particular men are.
But a more naturalistic Caesar Must Die would’ve been a wholly different film than the one the Tavianis wanted to make, which is instead trickier, and meant to show how life and art reflect and influence each other. It isn’t just that Shakespeare’s story of honor-killings and paranoia is so in sync with the burly tough guys who are playing it out; it’s also that these men seem so transported by the process of becoming other people, even when they’re only playing “themselves.” Neo-realism has nearly always involved that element of magnification: aestheticizing hard truths to make them simultaneously more palatable and more powerful. In Caesar Must Die, the characters are both actor and audience, looking at themselves through the lens of a centuries-old fictionalization of history.