SEVERAL LITERARY CRITICS over the years have wrestled with the opposition between Shakespeare the Writer and Shakespeare the Dramatist for the Stage. Without quite getting into this long debate, which has included the likes of G. B. Shaw and T. S. Eliot as well as Harold Bloom and Peter Brook, the point is that some Shakespeare plays read better on page than when they are performed. The reverse is true also; plays which are weak to read have proven effective on the stage. Pericles, Prince of Tyre for instance, a central part of Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us. Then there’s Titus Andronicus, an underrated masterpiece of which Peter Brook mounted a landmark production with Laurence Olivier but which is lowly ranked and dismissed by several critics, for lacking, on page, the same power as King Lear or Hamlet.
Everyone from Elia Kazan to Brook note that there has never been a universally acknowledged masterpiece of a theatrical production of Hamlet that fully contains the vision of the text, leave alone on screen. In terms of economy, focus and writing, Julius Caesar is able to combine the two aspects, powerful as text and powerful as a dramatic work. The power of the text is indeed the subject of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die which is, to say the least, one of the most unusual adaptations of Shakespeare to ever be put on screen.
The Taviani brothers have made films that are singular for its strong anthropological current. Their films are never about stories, plots and characters, but about places and cultures and classes. Their breakthrough film, Padre Padrone depicted the inner fortitude and personal resistance that led an illiterate Sardinian shepherd suffering under a fierce father to learn to read, write and become a published author, a process that is shown and depicted on screen. The digressive element in their films bears out strongly in Caesar Must Die.
The basic conceit of Caesar Must Die superficially resembles that of Marat/Sade, that is inmates putting on a show. The actors are all actual inmates, some of them prisoners, others of them ex-cons from the Rebibbia Prison in Rome. During the astonishing audition sequence at the beginning of the film, their rap-sheet and involvement in several crimes are read out loud, in a kind of parody of the Police Line-Up scene. The audition sequence is conducted by an ambitious artistic director called Fabio (who like the reporter in Citizen Kane, is mostly seen with his back to the camera) who seeks to test the dramatic potential of his non-actors. He asks each them to introduce themselves, their real name and family background, under the fictional condition of being at a station while acknowledging their off-screen wife. The final round up is Salvatore Striano, who was involved in organized crime, cast as Brutus. Giovanni Arcuri, who is in prison for trafficking narcotics, is Caesar. Cassius is played by Cosimo Rega, who is in prison for homicide.
The rest of the film charts out lengthy sequences of the non-actors reading out their lines and rehearsing several scenes with each other. These sequences which start out as naturalistic eventually become abstract. The Tavianis manage to show the in-between moments of rehearsal, the little moments where the actors become the characters. In this case, we see inmates with secondary education, from poor upbringings become representations of their famous Roman ancestors. Striano becomes Brutus, a figure from Shakespeare’s text. The blurring of lines between their real selves, their character roles and the space of rehearsal is never delineated by the Tavianis as a display of arch-self consciousness.
One moment is especially soft-pedalled. It’s the scene from Act 1, Scene II, where Brutus and Cassius overlook Caesar and Mark Anthony arriving in parade, where the Dictator is seemingly tempted to take the Crown and makes a show of protest and humility. Cassius laments that,
Rome has become a city without shame…Naples too has become a city without shame…Forgive me, Fabio, it seems to be sometimes that Shakespeare lived on the streets of my city
The delivery of this line is simple and without affectation. A more comical moment is Giovanni Arcuri reading his school textbook of Julius Caesar’s account on his campaign in Gaul. These scenes which can be described as “rehearsal” are essayistic, digressive but they also contain abstraction, they work in cinema as the real things itself.
The extended sequence of Caesar’s assassination and the aftermath goes into full abstraction. The large prisoner yard is the location for Caesar’s arrival, this includes the Caesar ignoring the prophecy of the “ides of march” and a letter of warning given by a conflicted senator. Caesar/Arcuri walks through the same prison yard that must be part of his daily routine, only now he walks like Caesar, with towel around him forming a toga. He walks with authority and honor. The manner in which text allows the actors to transform themselves and changes their relation to space achieves special poignancy here.
The assassination of Caesar at the End of Act III of the play is staged in a small confined room that becomes the Roman Senate. The sequence has Caesar being asked to free a relation of Metellus(“Is there no voice more worthy than my own/To sound more sweetly in Caesar’s ear/for the repealing of my banish’d brother?”). Caesar, balked at being asked to fulfill demands by one as low as he stresses his authority over his former comrades (“Caesar, thou dost me wrong”). His rejection of this final offer for saving face triggers the assassination as the conspirators kill him to preserve Rome’s dying Republic. First Casca(“Speak, hands, for me!”) then the others, Metellus, Decius, Cassius and at last Brutus, Caesar’s closest friend who chooses duty over friendship.
The center of Shakespeare’s Tragedy is Brutus, a honorable man who commits assassination to preserve the Roman State from tyranny and whose very actions creates the thing he opposes, the rise of Octavian, Rome’s First Emperor. In Orson Welles’ hands, the Mercury Theatre production made it a play about the rise of fascism and resisting tyranny. The Tavianis broaden the social vision, a circle of prisoners cast away from the state playing characters who are themselves trapped by older codes.
It also sidesteps the trappings of this conceit, the promise of redemption and higher calling through art. The actual theatrical production which frames the action is shot in colour, unlike the black-and-white of the majority of the film. Black and white represents abstraction and the freedom of the mind, one which exists only in the in-between moments of rehearsal. The actual production only shows us the scenes of Brutus’ death and the curtain call, where the actors arrive on stage, namely Arcuri/Caesar and Rega/Cassius lift up the prostate Brutus and join hands with their cast in a happy cheer. After that its back to their lonely, small cells.
The Taviani’s use of these actors, prisoners and penitents, lends them a poignancy and bearing that society does not accord them, their only freedom being found in the words of a text written several hundred years ago.
The text is rigid but it offers freedom to find yourself.