Santa Barbara International Film Festival Review by Sharon Byrne
One of my favorite treats of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival is getting to see films from around the world that won significant competitions. Let everyone else do the Hollywood star stuff. I want to see the great films, and this festival delivers.
I saw the Cannes 2012 winner NO Saturday night. Sunday night, I took my daughter to see the 2012 Berlin Festival Golden Bear Winner Ceasar Must Die.
Caesar Must Die is a documentary, shot in black-and-white, in an Italian high-security prison. A theater director has partnered with the prison to produce Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, using the inmates as actors for the play. The film follows the auditions, casting and rehearsals, and the play is performed on a stage for a live, outside audience (not prisoners).
From the beginning, the pressure is high. The emotions are intense. We see the offenses, arrest date, and sentence of each member of the cast, some of them in for life for violent crimes, including murder.
You might think that prison inmates would make lousy actors, or at least really dangerous, hard-to-control ones, but as they become enveloped in the scenes, and in their characters, it becomes quite clear that Italians bring a passion to Shakespeare seldom matched on any stage. Further, this particular batch of Italian inmates is more than capable of mustering the raw, visceral emotions required for Julius Caesar. It’s like they were born for this. Some of them are natural entertainers, and very polite about asking which accent is appropriate for their character, causing the film audience to chuckle. Perhaps Shakespeare knew a thing or two about Italians… after all, he set many of his plays in Italy.
All of the rehearsals take place within the prison, and the director, Fabio, has to hunt around for suitable spots to act out some of the scenes. Prison life goes on around the actors as they rehearse, and while there is some disdain and scoffing by other inmates, curiosity starts to pick up. The guards watch a key scene where the murdered Ceasar is carried out into the forum. Inmates scream the lines of the chorus from behind barred windows as Marc Anthony gives his rousing speech, casting aspersions on the murderers of Caesar.
It’s quite clear early on that Brutus and Caesar have become their characters entirely. As the conspiracy to murder Caesar gets underway, Anthony is next, followed by Cassius. Eventually all the players successively become consumed by it.
It’s an amazing thing to watch a felon take to Shakespeare and work it, live it, all while going in and out of the same locked cell, sharing space with the same felons, behind prison walls.
The end result is a terrific film, blending documentary with high theater, against a barren, locked-down setting. As they rise to performing Shakespeare, some of the actors acknowledge that they’d been fools to think this stuff was stupid in school. Others realized that their ancient Roman heritage truly was worthy of Shakespeare’s pen…
One of the most moving parts occurs when Cassius, back in his cell, reflects that now he has performed art, his cell truly feels like a prison.
The performances are captivating, especially when you keep getting reminders that you are watching prison inmates. The film caused some controversy with its win at Berlin, but it’s a solid piece, combining intense emotion, great drama, and wry humor.
Shakespeare would have wanted nothing less.