Will Noah reviews the latest film from two of Italian cinema’s elder statesmen.

Caesar Must Die screens at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday September 29th at 6:30pm and Sunday September 30th at 9pm, at the Walter Reade Theater Monday October 1st at 8:45pm, and Monday October 8th at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center.

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Caesar Must Die, the new film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, boasts an intriguing premise. The film is a scripted chronicle of a staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar by a company of prisoners in Rome’s Rebibbia Prison. Furthermore, the film’s cast is made up of real-life high security prisoners playing themselves. This setup, coded with levels of reality, cinema, and theater, seems like a premade thematic jungle gym that could be explored via any number of paths. It’s a shame, then, that the Taviani brothers have chosen such a cautious and noncommittal route through their own scenario. Caesar Must Die has plenty of arresting formal ideas when it comes to the staging of Shakespeare’s text, but even these wear thin once it becomes apparent that the Tavianis have no idea how to crack the human façade presented by their incarcerated cast.

But let’s go back to that premise, whose structures are maintained throughout the film, even if they’re not satisfyingly exploited. What’s most intriguing about it is the relationship between film and theater, and how they reflect reality. Caesar Must Die suggests that each can act in turn as an intermediate between reality and the other medium. Theater offers us the physical presence of the convicted actors, while film offers us a glimpse of their reality beyond the bounds of the proscenium. In the film’s best scenes, theater and cinema mingle freely, as the space of Rebibbia morphs between a film set, a stage, and a prison, often playing all three at once. The limits of the Tavianis’ diegesis can often be tough to nail down; the relative artificiality of a given scene will frequently be shot up or down a notch by a stray light or music cue. This results in an intriguing production of Shakespeare’s play, one that breaks down the confinements of both stage and cinema and draws freely from both.

The problem remains, however, that Caesar Must Die is not just an adaptation of Julius Caesar. It purports as well to be an investigation of the prisoners who make up its cast. Unfortunately, the Tavianis touch upon only the most obvious aspects of their lives in what is either a feeble attempt at distancing effects or merely bad screenwriting. The scenes of dialogue in which the prisoners step out of Caesar’s play are an embarrassing compendium of prison movie clichés. Furthermore, any resonance between their own lives and the play is invariably brought up in a contrived fashion, robbing the men of any sense of autonomous existence. One wonders why the Tavianis didn’t just leave the cameras rolling onset and shoot these scenes as genuine documentary. The argument could be made that their aim is to view all experience in terms of acting, but this ultimately amounts to just another dangling thematic possibility. Only the sequence depicting the men’s auditions for the play manages to take advantage of this idea. The patently fake emotions projected by the prisoners as they perform an acting exercise are the realest thing in the film, since there’s no way to forge a real fake. If only Caesar Must Die had managed to follow this thread to a more revealing conclusion; as is, its results are pedantic, aloof, and undercooked.