Review: 'Caesar Must Die' Is a Gimmick Film That Really Works

I'm a horrible person. Despite countless "60 Minutes" programs about the remarkable artistic and/or humanitarian work done by prisoners with long sentences, I still have a tendency to treat anyone that did so much as steal a Whatchamacallit bar at age nine as if they have a communicable disease. I can listen to Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash, but when faced with an actual criminal yearning for redemption, my cheek refuses to turn. I'm a vindictive, holier-than-thou jerk, always ready to point out the Norman Mailer – Jack Abbott scandal instead of looking for understanding.

Luckily, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, the humanist filmmakers behind the much heralded “Night of the Shooting Stars,” are better men than I. “Caesar Must Die'”a curious beast, it's not a documentary, or a straight narrative or a “filmed play,” but it is a hybrid of all this. It also zooms by at an shockingly brisk pace - 76 minutes! Three minutes shorter than “Zelig,” which had heretofore been my marker of things taking a long time, e.g. “In the time I've stood on this line I could have watched 'Zelig!'”As such, there is less of an attempt to get to know the characters – their essence comes through in a collage of scenes where they are “being themselves” or “being themselves interpreting other characters.”

This sounds more confusing than it is, so let me be clear. The Taviani Brothers discovered a Roman prison with a robust theater company. They decided to film the rehearsals and production of “Julius Caesar,” but instead of going for fly-on-the-way Maysles/Wiseman cinema (because, again, all those episodes of '60 Minutes') they worked with the prisoners to dramatize the endeavor. Furthermore, they then stylized their rehearsals, giving them something of free reign of the prison to pretend that they were actually Brutus or Marc Antony, but then to “break character” and act “as themselves” with scripted commentary on the undertaking.

Far out, I know, but once you get in the groove it makes sense, and it is altogether mesmerizing. Know this: these are not purse snatchers. These are hard criminals, some of 'em never getting out from behind bars, and they are quite talented. The director within the film makes the decision to allow them to speak the dialogue in their natural, not-very-posh Southern Italian accents - some of this, surely, getting lost in the translation - but the effect still works based on their mannerisms. It is quite remarkable to see just how easily they slip into their roles.

The weaving of actual Shakespeare with the actors' discussion on the play (and the parallels to their lives) makes for unexpected transitions. If I were more of a Shakespeare scholar, I'd no doubt have caught where they went off-script sooner. As such, “Caesar Must Die” attains a most lofty goal – it is a gimmick film that begins to feel like a whole, natural piece.

Beyond the “real prisoners” gag there are a number of fascinating scenes, most notably the auditions where they are asked to give personal information under different false circumstances (e.g. “you are about to desert your family at the border.”) This is enough to make “Caesar Must Die” a welcome bit of observational cinema, but by the time the big finish comes and men in robes are wailing on “the yard,” it is clear this is a one of a kind movie.

At 76 minutes, “Caesar Must Die” is more of an art piece than a thick steak of a feature film, but it maintains a fascinating hum from start to finish.

Grade: A-