‘Caesar Must Die’ opens at the Music Box Theater on Friday, March 22nd.
Using theater to constructively redirect the more malevolent energies of prison inmates into positive creative uses is, I’m happy to say, a fairly regular occurrence these days. I first became aware of the trend when I heard about Rick Cluchey’s San Quentin Theater Workshop, founded in the late fifties. Cluchey was released in 1967 after then-Governor Pat Brown commuted his life sentence, but he’s continued on since, staging plays consistently in the U.S. and around the world – primarily the works of Samuel Beckett, but he writes his own plays as well.
In Italy today, there are roughly 110 theater companies in residence at prisons, among them director Fabio Cavalli’s program at Rebibbia, a high security prison for long-term offenders in Rome. Director Matteo Garrone has drawn from the prison populations for two of his films, Gomorrah (where actual criminals, semi-fictionally, enacted the ubiquitous criminal activities of the Camorra, primarily in Naples) and Reality (which will play at the Music Box next week), featuring Aniello Arena in a terrific comic performance, even though Arena himself continues to serve a life sentence at Rebibbia for triple homicide (Arena started his theater work at Rebibbia 12 years ago).
If good acting is drawing on what you know and what you've experienced, and having the capacity and self-awareness to turn the psychology underneath those experiences into representative behavior, then long-time criminals either have no chance whatsoever of empathizing with another character, or they already have all of the natural resources required to do exactly that. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a natural choice for these kinds of actors; what don’t most of these guys know about hierarchy, loyalty, personal ambition, betrayal and vengeance? (Plus, practically, it’s probably the easiest of his plays to stage with an entirely male cast.)
In that context, Caesar Must Die (Cesare Deve Morire) (Italy, 2012), Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s chronicle of the production of Julius Caesar at Rebibbia a year or so ago, is a complex and intriguing cinematic feat. Asserting power, conspiring against it, staking your own claim in a larger network mission – having convicts present these objective traits while they themselves live in an environment that depends on each, and therefore all, of them subjectively asserting their alpha-doggedness makes for some harrowing intersections between fiction and reality. At one point two of the primary actors ‘step outside,’mid-rehearsal, to settle a difference that has nothing to do with the play, yet the ‘reality’ of the play has evoked in each of them real personal enmity that they can’t redirect. The director, Fabio Cavalli, simply walks away rather than intervening – Cavalli knows he can’t make that choice for them. Impressively, it’s their fellow cast members who break things up, another consequence that Cavalli can’t dictate, but must wait and hope for. Like a good parent or therapist, Cavalli can only show them their options – they themselves must decide, day by day, to commit to the power of creativity to expand their own lives and self-worth, and use it to transcend their more brutal, self-involved nature.
There are actually two narratives here – the story of the realization of the play by the inmates, and the Taviani’s own observations of how the work affects the actors outside of direct rehearsal, and how the production affects the larger prison population. The Tavianis have decided to blur the boundaries; convicts rehearsing lines in their cells, or performing the work-tasks of their incarceration, nonetheless still incorporate the rhythms and inflections of the theatrical text in their thoughts and actions. Guards observing the rehearsals, which expand outside of the rehearsal room to include the passageways and courtyards of the prison, comment in ways that aren't dissimilar to Hamlet’s rooftop guards, or the compatriots of Benedick and Claudio in Much Ado.
You don’t need to be academically familiar with Julius Caesar to understand these dynamics. Nonetheless, I suspect the film, as fascinating as it is (and as short as well – 75 minutes) won’t appeal to a lot of mainstream filmgoers. That’s a shame, but there it is. The Tavianis are celebrating common humanity, across centuries of expression and seemingly irreconcilable extremities of character, in a very palatable and, yes, entertaining way. And I can practically guarantee that if you go see it, you’ll be glad you did.