Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Constant as the Northern Star

I had a weird bit of synchronicity happen to me on the way home from the theater after the first day of the Italian Film Festival. The second movie of the day was Caesar Must Die (2012, directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani), a hybrid documentary about a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar performed by high security prisoners. At one point, one prisoner who is not performing in the play suggests that the story reminds him of his life back in Nigeria. Cut to the drive home. I was listening to Weekends on NPR and the story that was on the radio when I turned it on was a piece about a new Royal Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar set in Africa and performed by an all black cast. That sent a bit of frission coursing up the back of my skull. But that's Shakespeare for you, I guess. The Bard can be a reflecting mirror sometimes. You see in him what you bring to him.

As I say, Caesar Must Die is a hybrid documentary in which the preparation for the performance: auditions, rehersals, and whatnot all begin to bleed into the lives of the prisoners, and the film becomes a performance unto itself. The opening of the film is in vivid color, keyed to the color choices of the theatrical experience. Then it shifts to black and white for most of its running time, giving the whole thing a weird kind of abstraction, even when it's being bluntly reportorial. There's a strong dichotomy between the abstracted reality of the play and the lived reality of the prisoners. Everything is scripted, one assumes, but that doesn't stop the narrative from jumping off of Shakespeare into the real conflicts between the performers, or their own aspirations and existential crises. These are mostly desperate men, and that desperation finds life as Brutus and Cassius and Caesar and Mark Antony, who in their ways weren't much different from the actors who play them.

We get a feel for the men who act the play during their auditions, in which they are given a specific action to be played two ways: sorrowful/apologetic and aggressive. Once cast, we get mug shots of the actors, each detailing his particular crime. These include thieves, drug traffickers, petty gangsters, mafiosi, and murderers. It's surprisingly well-cast, particularly when the roles from the play bleed into the roles each man plays in his prison life. They guy who plays Caesar, for instance, is a mafia boss, a man used to command. He has his petty vendettas, and he vents one of them on the guy who plays Decius of talking about him out of school, slipping out of character, but still very much IN character. It's a startling moment, but I think it might be suspect, too, because this is a film all about the blurring of reality and fiction. Great fiction, after all, is all about telling lies in order to tell the truth.

Certainly, the actors view art differently as prisoners than they ever did as free men. One of them suggests that Julius Caesar feels like the life he knew on the street. Another marvels that he ever thought this stuff was boring. There's a risk involved in presenting the internal monologues of the prisoners, though, because this stuff stands out in stark relief as being staged. There's an irony in this, given that the actual performance material seems more naturalistic. It's a problem the film never really solves, but it's not a crippling problem. The film on the whole is a commentary on the nature and uses of art. The obvious aim of this production (and the program that sponsors it) is to give the prisoners a sense of humanity and engagement with their lives. This it undoubtedly accomplishes, but the end of the film suggests a somewhat darker result. We follow one of the actors back into his cell after the play is done. He looks at the camera and tells us that he didn't feel like a prisoner until he knew art. I wish this rang truer. It would work better if I believed it.

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