NYFF Review: Caesar Must Die


I know it’s an uncontroversial thing to say, but I like William Shakespeare. His writing is incredible, his style is unmatched, and his characters are fascinating. Still, I don’t go out of my way to read his work or see his plays, mostly because I don’t go out of my way to read anything or watch many plays. If I find myself reading or attending one of those Shakespeare’s works, though, there is a very good chance that I will enjoy myself.

Such was the case with Caesar Must Die. I went in with absolutely zero expectations (not even hints of its quality), so I certainly had no idea that it was an abridged version of Julius Caesar as performed by Italian prison inmates going in. It was quite the pleasant surprise.

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Caesar Must Die (Cesare deve morire)
Directors: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani
Release Date: TBD
Country: Italy 

There’s nothing new about the idea of prisoners performing theater (I believe there are even a few documentaries on the subject), but Caesar Must Die takes that idea and does something interesting with it. The film comfortably straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction, and it’s hard to tell at any given time what is real and what is not. The film was shot at a real prison using real prison inmates. The theater director in the film is the actual theater director at the prison. All of the prisoners are actually prisoners, except for one, who was a prisoner but has since been released.

But this isn’t their first play, as the film makes it seem. These prisoners/actors have done hundreds of shows, some of them Shakespeare, many of them not. This is where the confusion comes in. While I was watching the film, I assumed that it was entirely fictional. There was nothing about the presentation that made me think otherwise. In fact, it wasn’t until the credits gave some autobiographical information about a few of the actors/prisoners that I began to wonder. But that only raises more questions. How much of the character feuds (something I will go into later) were between the actual actors? To what extent did the filmmakers simply document what was going on versus controlling everything? Usually I don’t particularly like it when filmmakers pull back the curtain, but I think a commentary track about Caesar Must Die would be very interesting. I would honestly like to know.

Caesar Must Die

Hearing Shakespeare in another language is bizarre, something that was compounded with the laymen-English subtitled. I would have expected the translators would simply quote Shakespeare and the relevant lines of Julius Caesar rather than attempt to translate the Italian to plain English, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I heard Italian Shakespeare and read modern English Shakespeare. It was not the Shakespeare I know and love… but then again, neither is Julius Caesar.

I have never read Julius Caesar. I knew that Brutus and Cassius betrayed Caesar after he turned tyrannical, but I only knew that because of Dante’s Inferno (where the traitors spend an eternity being chomped on by two of Satan’s heads). So I went into the story with no preconceived notions about how it should go, and I also went in without any big lines to anticipate. A modern-English version of “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” might have hurt me a bit, but I have no such connection with Caesar.

Caesar Must Die cuts Shakespeare’s play down to 50-something minutes, which I assume excises more than half of its content, but I would be hard pressed to tell you where things got cut. Nothing really seemed to be missing. Sure, not every character was always explained completely, but they never are. Everything flowed very smoothly, and I now feel like I have gotten the essence of Julius Caesar

But my ignorance of the play as well as the laymen translation made the outside story a bit confusing. When actors went off-script, I was forced to wait for another person to tell me. The anger played the same way whether they were acting within the play or simply acting within the movie, if they’re acting at all. Maybe one of the prisoners just got angry, broke character, and the cameras kept rolling (although that’s something I wouldn’t have thought about at the time). I don’t know how much of my confusion came from the language barrier and how much of it was by design, but it was the one thing that kept me from being completely invested in what was going on.

Caesar Must Die

But when Caesar Must Die isn’t just being Julius Caesar, it’s not quite as compelling. If anything, it’s rather boring. The problem is repetition. Everything is done too many times, and for far too long. The auditions, while interesting conceptually (the prisoners are say some basic facts about themselves while displaying varying emotions) don’t stay interesting after the sixth, seventh, and eighth times they’re done. Every single person in the play auditions, some get to do their whole spiel and some are just portions, and it’s just too much. When all of the actors are chosen and it goes through them one by one, stating their crime and sentence (perhaps I should have wondered there whether or not it was based on reality), I didn’t remember what most of their auditions were like, and since I didn’t know the characters they had been assigned, I had no frame of reference to point to. It was just unnecessary. Knowing that they’re real people, maybe they would have been offended if their auditions had been cut while others were kept, but if that’s the case, their selfishness kept the movie from being great.

No, Caesar Must Die is not “great.” It didn’t have the little something that a film needs to take it to that next level. But it’s still really good and comes highly recommended. If you don’t like Shakespeare, this won’t be the thing to change your mind, but if you just want to see a very interesting performance of Shakespeare, then look no further. Depending on your knowledge of the Italian language and the original Julius Caesar, you may have a somewhat different perspective of the film coming up. Hopefully it will be an even more positive one, though. I’d hate to have those things ruin it.