A tragedy of Shakespeare, set in prison, played by real-life convicted criminals, in Italy, in black-and-white: that’s the foundation of Caesar Must Die.
These criminals, mind you, are no petty thieves. They’re convicted drug traffickers, mobsters, murders. Their sentences are all for life, or for stretches of time longer than I’ve been alive. Yet these Roman killers and gangsters aren’t at all what you’d expect. They seem tough, sure; but they’re also bursting with life and tense, aching, almost hysterical emotion.
You find this out early in the film, in an absurdly impressive audition sequence. These men can act. Hell, they look good — really good — on camera. They weep, they rage. “How could this be a part of prison life?” I thought. It’s almost as if they’re having fun, enjoying themselves, feasting on some of the most high-brow things in human experience — literature, poetry, theater, SHAKESPEARE! How could this be?
That was the question I was constantly asking myself.
And in case I failed to make this clear, Caesar Must Die is a documentary…It just doesn’t feel like one.
Once the prisoners start rehearsing Julius Caesar — the play the prisoners rehearse — they take on their characters to a ridiculous extent. Caesar — or the guy who plays him — goes all alpha-male. The guy playing Brutus becomes obsessed with Brutus. Then discerning what’s rehearsed and what’s real, what’s directed and what’s improv is basically impossible.
It’s almost annoying. Like when the rehearsals dissolve after someone makes a mistake and the prisoners still talk in a punchy, pithy, theatrical way. It’s unbelievable. But when the prisoners go back to acting, you forgive it, immediately. Then suddenly, it seems, all you want to see is the drama unfold in the prison’s severe scenery.
Walking away from the film, you could take with you lots of things. It’s layered like a casserole. But you can’t help but feel that art doesn’t help these men. Through drama — pretending to be other people — they are free, momentarily. And that helps them, if only in realizing the extent of their chains, their yearning for liberty.
Perhaps the U.S. should take heed of Italy’s drama workshops. Or, maybe, we could try that Brazilian idea where inmates can trim four days off their sentences for every book they read.
Either way, this movie messes with you — but in the best ways — constantly.
Caesar Must Die plays at 7:15 p.m. on Saturday. It plays again on Sunday, April 28, at 6:45 p.m.
Other Highlights: Saturday, April 20
Arcadia. When a father takes his kids on an impromptu road trip across the country — without their mom — it’s all fun at first, but things quickly turn hairy as the reason for mom’s absence isn’t given and the cops get involved. (7 p.m.; also showing on April 21 at 4:30 a.m.)
The Hypnotist. Based on a best-selling novel, “The Hypnotist” is a thriller following a detective and an insomniac psychologist as they try to find a missing girl before a killer, who slaughtered the girl’s family, finds her. (9:20 p.m.; also showing April 2 at 9:15 p.m.)
100 Bloody Acres. This midnight movie is about the strange Morgan family business — in which car crash victims are used in their “Blood and Bone” fertilizer. But when the supply of corpses runs dry, one Morgan brother comes across three people stranded on a road. He gets an idea (related to business), but his feelings for one of these stranded persons end up making his business sense go haywire. (11:45 p.m.; also showing April 26 at 11:45 p.m.)
Throughout the entirety of the 2013 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival, we’ll be spotlighting one notable movie each day, along with other notable screenings. To see the WCCO Movie Blog’s complete coverage on the MSPIFF, click here.