Caesar Must Die!

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Ancient Rome and its quasi-mythical characters have been reinvented by the posterities as much as Shakespeare has. The first Italian mention in print of the Bard, as it happens, occurs in the preface of the 18th-century Italian tragedy Giulio Cesare by Antonio Conti, where the author compares his own account of the Roman dictator to that of Sasper [sic], described for the unknowing Italian readers as “the English Corneille”. Even Benito Mussolini, who conceived of his Fascist regime as a revival of the Roman Empire, called Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (that he read in French) “a great school for rulers”, and went on to rewrite his own version of the play with the help of dramatist Giovacchino Forzano.

Every age, it seems, turns to the great Roman conqueror as an inspiration for ambitious conquests or as a warning against despotism. If you are interested in the historical record, read Luciano Canfora’s masterful Julius Caesar: The People’s Dictator; if you are into pop culture, have fun reading the cult comic book Asterix and the Laurel Wreath or navigating the website of the philosophical Philadelphia barber Julius Scissor.

The good news is that a new filmic version of Julius Caesar – Cesare deve morire (Caesar must die) – got awarded one of the most distinguished European film prizes, the Golden Bear at the recent 62nd Berlin International Film Festival. The most significant aspect of this new work by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, who have made the history of Italian cinema, is that the actors are inmates of a prison in Rome, who are filmed as they prepare to stage the Shakesperean tragedy. The Taviani brothers have a long record of adapting literary classics to the big screen (admittedly with mixed results), from Pirandello’s Kaos to Goethe’s Elective Affinities, from Dumas’ Luisa Sanfelice to Tolstoj’s Resurrection, but their first experience with Shakespeare is definitely the most daring.

Shakespeare in prison is not a new enterprise either, with many inspirational experiences documented both in the film Shakespeare Behind Bars and in the book Shakespeare Inside (that examines, among others, a production of Julius Caesar). But something more can be legitimately expected from two recognized masters of European cinema; a version taking place precisely in Rome and a jury chaired by Mike Leigh also make for high hopes. We must wait to see whether the audience will agree with the jurors, but it is a good sign that only a year after Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, the Berlin festival has honoured another interpretation of Shakespeare’s Rome. For now, let’s be satisfied with the synopsis:

“The performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar comes to an end and the performers are rewarded with rapturous applause. The lights go out; the actors leave the stage and return to their cells. They are all inmates of the Roman maximum security prison Rebibbia. One of them comments: ‘Ever since I discovered art this cell has truly become a prison’.”

Author:Shaul Bassi

".... speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice" (The Merchant of Venice, 1.1.121-22)

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