The Taviani Brothers’ production of Julius Caesar is one of the most daring and interesting adaptations of a Shakespeare play since 2011’s Coriolanus.
Utilising the skills of incarcerated criminals, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani create a striking tableau using black and white photography and draw incredibly compelling and emotional performances from men considered dangerous to society.
Though Caesar Must Die does open with a final costumed performance of Julius Caesar the majority of the film isn’t of a polished production. The Brothers follow the inmates’ rehearsals from within the prison and its various settings. Internal drama between the players creates tension in an unexpected fashion, those familiar with the play will find tension rising at times. While the choice to use prisoners may seem unusual, it is quickly apparent that this is in fact a master stroke, these are dangerous men playing very dangerous men capable of terrible things. Instead of having actors try and convey the emotions that surround the taking of a life, the Taviani Brothers ensure that those that have experienced taking a life demonstrate it on screen.
The black and white photography creates a striking effect, while Caesar Must Die is not constantly monochromatic the cinematography is certainly beautiful. Though the prisoners may not be dressed in black and white stripes like cartoon villains, the colour scheme asserts and serves to remind you that these men are in prison and most likely still in prison when you get to see the film. The minimal sets and costuming add to the feel of the production. The men involved are simply acting on a cardboard box and it’s more compelling than the majority of performances committed to celluloid.
The minimal use of music emphasises the performances and the theatricality of the piece. Filming performances designed for the stage can be a risky strategy. Theatre performances can often appear hammy or overacted on the screen, but this stripped down and minimalist performance is perfectly suited to cinema audiences. There is a great deal about Caesar Must Die that is surprising, but these nuanced and subtle performances rank as the most revelatory of them. A great deal of the atmosphere and sound comes from the regular sounds of a prison. The rattling of keys and the jeering of prisoners all add to the piece.
Caesar Must Die is a muscular piece of filmmaking, working within the narrative and framework of Julius Caesar to convey a different story. A story that is still marred by violence, but is one of trapped artistry. While there is little doubt that the actors in Caesar Must Die are hardened criminals, it is a revelation to see these murders and drug dealers create something of real beauty and worth.
4 out of 5