"Da quando ho conosciuto l'arte, 'sta cella è diventata 'na prigione":
Cesare deve morire and the Unsettling Self-(Re-)Fashioning Power of Theater
Domenico Lovascio, Università Degli Studi Di Genova
As uplifting as it is unsettling, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Cesare deve morire (2012) is one of the most peculiar and engaging Shakespearian adaptations of the past few years. A drama-documentary chronicling the staging of Julius Caesar by the inmates of the maximum-security wing of the Rebibbia prison in Rome, Cesare deve morire explores a wide range of thought-provoking issues. As an adaptation, it is especially interesting for the directors' unusual choice to have each actor "translate" his lines into his own dialect, which enriches Shakespeare's text with new layers of meaning, in that each dialect both carries geographic-specific cultural traits and evokes conscious and unconscious associations in the viewers' imagination. The use of dialect is also decisive in creating a bridge between the events in Julius Caesar and the inmates' first-hand experience of criminal life, which endows their performance with profound intensity. This article notably focuses on the ultimate consequences brought about on the convicts' perception of their own lives and selves by their intimate encounter with art. Specifically, the rehabilitative and regenerating function of theater seems simultaneously to carry disturbing retributive overtones, since this reawakening contact with art leads some of the inmates fully to realize the extent of what they have lost.
Shakespeare's Words, Convicts' Experiences
As uplifting as it is unsettling, "at once ancient and dangerously new" (Lane 2013)
, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Cesare deve morire
(Caesar Must Die
, 2012) is "a film that defies easy categorization" (Calbi 2014, 235)
and arguably one of the most peculiar and engaging Shakespearean adaptations of the past few years. A 76-minute long "double hybrid that occupies a space somewhere between documentary and fiction right along the border of cinema and theater" (Long 2014)
, Cesare deve morire
chronicles the staging of Julius Caesar
by the inmates of the maximum-security wing of the Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome, raising a wide range of thought-provoking issues. Besides restating the universal value of Shakespeare's art, to which people from the most disparate social and life backgrounds are able to relate, the film especially focuses on the ultimate consequences — at the same time positive and negative — brought about on the prisoners' perception of their own lives and selves by their intimate encounter with art and culture.
Shot in a mere 21 days (Rohter 2013)
, this "stimulating marriage between theater and harsh reality" (Rooney 2012)
was awarded The Golden Bear and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival, and was also selected as the Italian entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, although it did not make the final shortlist. It received eight nominations for Italy's David di Donatello 2012 awards (winning as many as five, among which those for best film and best director), and won the Nastro d'Argento 2012, together with a host of lesser prizes.
Although the inmates of the Rebibbia prison had been staging performances under the direction of Fabio Cavalli since 2003, it was only through a journalist friend that Paolo and Vittorio Taviani learned about the initiative in the first place. Their friend had been to Rebibbia to attend a performance of passages from Dante Alighieri's Commedia
and had reported how overwhelmed she had felt by this surprisingly intense experience (Fratarcangeli, 2012)
. Though admittedly skeptical as to what to expect from such a non-professional theatrical venture, the Tavianis followed their friend's suggestion and went to see the inmates of Rebibbia declaim Dante in their own regional dialects. They were amazed at what they witnessed:
The Tavianis therefore resolved to approach Cavalli, and the three of them together decided that the next project on which the Rebibbia inmates would work would be William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
: they would make a movie out of the whole experience. As the Tavianis explain, the choice of the 1599 Roman tragedy was dependent on its potential to turn into an emotional catalyst susceptible of making Shakespeare's words resonate with the convicts' personal experiences (Liguori, 2012)
. As this article will make clear, the directors' hunch proved to be well founded.
The movie is characterized by its circular structure.2
It starts from the conclusion of the project by showing the final performance; more specifically, by showing Brutus's suicide with Strato's assistance after all his other fellow soldiers have refused to help him die. Then we see Brutus dead and the performance end in triumph: the audience goes into raptures about what they have just witnessed. However, the ensuing shot exposes the now empty theater seats, immediately followed by a sequence showing the spectators quickly pouring out of the prison. Meanwhile, the parallel editing chosen by the directors for the sequence brings viewers back to the actors, who are now joylessly casting off their Roman robes. Three of them are then shown one by one as they are escorted back to their individual cells. The sound and fury of the performance have vanished into thin air, and the rattle of the keys in the locks remains the only sound to be heard. As the prisoners mechanically return to the grim reality of their actual lives, the saturated colors of the first scenes gradually yield to the black-and-white that will dominate the movie until its final part.
The scene then changes completely, and viewers are brought back to where it all started six months earlier: the presentation and inauguration of the yearly theatrical laboratory, followed by the auditions. Here, the prospective actors are asked to give their personal details in two different ways: first they have to convey sorrow, then anger. Though somewhat too protracted, this sequence is crucial, insofar as it starts familiarizing viewers with the inmates-actors and opens that back-and-forth process of approach and distancing toward the convicts that characterizes the movie. We begin seeing the inmates as actors, thereby momentarily forgetting their actual predicament. Moreover, we do not know exactly what crimes they have committed, and what we are faced with is just a handful of men giving of their best to get a part. However, after Cavalli assigns the roles, a hammering succession of close-ups of the principal members of the cast of convicts/actors with their crime and punishment as a caption abruptly brings us back to reality (Cesare deve morire, 12:46-13:19)
. They are introduced to us one by one in the following order:
|Giovanni Arcuri (Caesar)
| Salvatore Striano (Brutus)
|| 14 years and 8 months
|| organized crime
| Cosimo Rega (Cassius)
|| Fine pena mai ("life meaning life")
| Antonio Frasca (Mark Antony)
|| 26 years
|| various crimes
| Juan Dario Bonetti (Decius)
|| 15 years and 6 months
|| drug trafficking
| Vincenzo Gallo (Lucius)
|| Fine pena mai ("life meaning life")
|| organized crime
This brief yet chillingly penetrating sequence involves strong emotional repercussions for viewers, who are made conscious of the inmates' crimes when they least expect it. The blood-curdling realization of the ferocity of those felonies is central to the movie.3
The Tavianis do want us to see the convicts-turned-actors as "regular" people while they are acting, but they also want us to remain constantly aware of what they have done. While undoubtedly seeking to demonstrate that art is in everyone's reach and to expose its purifying potential and its capacity to help anybody improve their lives, the directors also seek bitterly to stress that an artistic experience cannot efface the past, no matter how profoundly intense and Aristotelically cathartic it can be. Even though the movie is clearly informed by the sharp awareness of both the distress of living in prison — see for example the scene where Rega laments: "Non so mica cosa farò domani mattina se mi negano ancora la cella singola. È mio diritto. Tutti con la diarrea oggi; cinque letti, cinque diarree" ("I really don't know what I'll do tomorrow morning if they keep denying me a single cell. It is my right. Everybody has diarrhea today; five beds, five cases of diarrhea," Cesare deve morire, 38:07-38:22)
— and the hardship of any possible future within a life that is now irreparably mutilated (Reverdito 2012)
, the Tavianis avoid easy exonerating and/or sentimental temptations, and show no commiseration for the convicts and their gloomy destiny as "guardatori di soffitti" ("ceiling observers," Cesare deve morire, 37:30)
In a curious historical twist, a play that was performed in Elizabethan times by players often conceived of as vagabonds and criminals is here performed by actual criminals. Having theatrical performances staged by inmates in prison is certainly an unusual choice, albeit by no means unique or pioneering. As for the Italian context, director Armando Punzo has been working since 1988 with the Compagnia della Fortezza, that is, the company made up of the inmates of the prison of Volterra, for which work he has even won the Ubu Prize, the most important award of the Italian theatrical community.4
In a broader context, Hank Rogerson's 2005 documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars
also explored the world of convicts through Shakespeare's arts by following for nine months a troupe of inmates preparing for a performance of The Tempest
The Tavianis' movie, however, stands out for the wider exposure it has given to such initiatives (especially thanks to the media resonance it achieved after the somewhat unexpected Berlin victory) and for its peculiar use of space.
Given the unavailability of the prison's dedicated theatrical space, which was being refurbished at the time, rehearsals had to take place elsewhere. Or, better, everywhere else. In Cesare deve morire, all the prison is a stage: the cells, the corridors, the library, the exercise courtyard — on which windows look down, so that both convicts and guards have the chance to watch the action like real spectators in ancient Rome. Any time of the day looks like a good time to rehearse. It is especially intriguing to see the inmates rehearsing in the same places where their lives of confinement go on every day, which furthers the intermingling of reality and performance — of which more anon. The use of space is inspiring: a window becomes a view from above of Rome in uprising; the corridors become the streets of Rome, where everyone hails Caesar as he passes by; the non-acting convicts become the Roman populace after Caesar's death and during the funeral orations; the cells become the houses where everyone seeks refuge after the murder; Lucius's lute becomes a harmonica — this being the only instrument Gallo can play.
Displacing a Shakespearean performance in the various spaces of a prison means adapting Shakespeare to a very peculiar environment that, as Paolo Lago (2012)
points out, is located outside space and time, at least outside the space and time of the daily life of contemporary society. Borrowing Michel Foucault's definition of both prison and theater as "heterotopias,"
that is, "privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis" (Foucault, 1986: 24)
, Lago (2012)
suggests that it is feasible to talk about Cesare deve morire
as "un'eterotopia dentro un'altra" ("a heterotopy inside another")
. This creates a sort of Chinese boxes effect that increases the spatial and temporal displacement of the inmates' performance in what is both a nowhere and an everywhere, thereby contributing to the spectators' difficulty in taking a stand about what they are witnessing on the screen.
Lago's insightful remark is, in turn, also susceptible of being applied to the question of adaptation itself, insofar as it seems we can talk about Cesare deve morire
as an adaptation inside another, since the Tavianis adapt the convicts' rehearsals and performance for the screen, but each actor had already "translated" (and thereby adapted) their lines into their own dialect of origin.6
The use of dialects is one of the aspects that make this adaptation especially worthy of attention, in that each dialect carries with itself a whole array of geographically specific cultural traits, together with an entire series of conscious and unconscious associations in the viewers' imagination. Francesco Carusone, the inmate portraying the Soothsayer, furnishes a telling example of the implications of the use of regional dialects. While rehearsing the scene in which the Soothsayer tries to warn Caesar of the danger awaiting him on the Ides of March, Carusone tells Cavalli: "Fabio, au paese mio, i maghi, gl'indovini, so' tutti nu poco pazzarielli. La posso fa' accussì?" ("Fabio, where I come from, wizards, soothsayers, they're all a bit loopy. Can I play it like this?," Cesare deve morire, 15:25-15:45)
. While giving this explanation, he starts acting loopy and eccentric, and Cavalli accepts what is to all intents and purposes an interpretation of Shakespeare's text, "for the adapter is an interpreter before becoming a creator" (Hutcheon 2006, 84)
By imposing themselves actively on the text, the actors are actually involved in the project as "conscious adapters" (Hutcheon 2006, 81)
of Julius Caesar
. Through their contributions, Shakespeare's text gets admirably enriched rather than vulgarized, as a moral strain of adaptation criticism might readily suggest (Hutcheon 2006, 1-6)
. Shakespeare's words acquire new colors and are provided with a visceral intensity that can be fully appreciated only by Italian people who are familiar with the dialects of Southern Italy — as testified by the fact that the very same Italian DVD of the film provides Italian subtitles, and "not only for the hearing-impaired but also because these dialects are largely foreign to many potential Italian viewers" (Calbi 2014, 241)
. This "refreshment" of the text through its "naturalization" as spoken dialect can also be seen as effectively exemplifying Margaret Jane Kidnie's idea of the Shakespearian "work" as "a dynamic process that evolves over time in response to the needs and sensibilities of its users" (Kidnie 2009, 2)
Some of the convicts' translations and the directors' modifications are not only instrumental in adding a distinct local color but, more importantly, give a clearer republican bent to the text. For example, the scene of Caesar's rejection of the crown is not reported to Cassius and Brutus by Casca but seen by them first-hand, thereby making Caesar's ambiguous triple rejection of the crown appear as a more straightforward demonstration of his thirst for absolute power: to add to the intensity of the scene, "he put it by with the back of his hand" (Julius Caesar, 1.2.221)
is expanded as "La schifa! Guarda, la sposta così, col dorso della mano" ("He scorns it! Look, he puts it aside like this, with the back of his hand," Cesare deve morire, 18:31-18:37)
. In Brutus's orchard soliloquy, "It must be by his death" (Julius Caesar, 2.1.10)
becomes the much more concise, "personal — direct, abbreviated, but highly emotional" (Calbi 2014, 241)"Addà murì" ("He has to die," Cesare deve morire, 23:07)
; and "for my part, / I know no personal cause to spurn at him, / But for the general" (Julius Caesar, 2.1.10-11)
becomes "se fosse per me solamente, non mi importasse e' niente, ma chille se fott'a Roma intera" ("if it was just about me, I wouldn't mind at all, but he's going to screw all Rome," Cesare deve morire, 23:13-23:18)
. Shakespeare's language is rendered more violent and endowed with a disruptive force straining its boundaries: new layers of meaning are added to the "original" lines.7
There are also meaningful additions further melding Shakespeare with the inmates' criminal milieu: "Swear priests and cowards, and men cautelous, / Old feeble carrions, and such suffering souls / That welcome wrongs" (Julius Caesar, 2.1.128-30)
becomes the much more colorful and emotional "Ca giurassero i prieviti, i cacasotto, i vecchi ruffiani, le carogne infami, i quacquaraquà e tutti i cornuti, mazziati e cuntenti" ("Swear priests, shit-scared people, old ruffians, vile bastards, turncoats and all the cuckolds, the beaten-up ones and the happy ones," Cesare deve morire, 26:37-26:47)
. Other additions seem intended to recall the specific context of Sicilian mafia. This is the case of "Picciotti" (Cesare deve morire, 25:19)
, a specific term commonly deployed by members of the Sicilian mafia to define the lowest level of affiliation with cosa nostra
and used by one of the minor characters to address his comrades while Brutus and Cassius are secretly discussing the plot; and "Bacio le mani, Cesare" ("I kiss your hands, Caesar," Cesare deve morire, 40:48-40:49)
, a typical greeting used by the mafia. The deployment of the inmates' different dialects endows their performance with an unprecedented polyphonic quality and with a genuine feeling of authenticity that only the mother tongue can yield. This way, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
, as Maurizio Calbi argues, becomes a sort of "'intertext' that is made to cohabit with the languages and codes of prison culture and, more specifically, the languages/dialects of the mafia and camorra culture spoken by these convicts-turned-actors" (2014, 240)
It is very important to stress once more that the use of dialect never entails a banalization or vulgarization. Far from it, it proves to be decisive in creating a bridge between the events in Shakespeare's tragedy and the prisoners' first-hand experience of the nature of crime and the codes of honor that shape the world of men, of conflicting allegiances and backstabbing, of betrayal and murder, which endows the performance in Cesare deve morire
with a visible surplus of intensity. Through the resonances between the story told by the play and the inmates' past, their performance is raised, so to speak, to the second power: the inmates can re-enact their personal experiences, whose vivid memory enables them to penetrate the dynamics of crime, revenge, and conspiracy with a sharper eye and a more profound understanding than even Shakespeare himself could possibly have. The convicts possess the awareness of men who did indeed find themselves having death set in one eye and who had to look into it closely. As Arcuri asks Striano, who has difficulty in performing a scene: "Ma perché? Di Cesari prepotenti, a casa nostra, non ne hai mai conosciuti?" ("But why? Have you never met domineering Caesars where we come from?," Cesare deve morire, 28:03-28:09)
The very fact that "these non-actors neo-realistically elevated to the role of historical giants" (Viganò 2012)
can readily appropriate Shakespeare's text by relating it to their former lives as criminals is not only a demonstration of Shakespeare's universality or instrumental to the generation of intense emotion. In fact, the seamless intertwining between script and personal memories in an effortless back-and-forth transition from life to stage and back exposes how labile and porous the boundaries between reality and fiction can turn out to be: the scene where Decius tries to convince Caesar to go the Senate despite Calphurnia's nightmare even prompts an actual altercation between Bonetti and Arcuri, which draws on their shared history in prison. As Guido Reverdito (2012)
points out, the Tavianis manage to channel in the convicts' acting both the tempestuous urges of a denied existence and the anxiety to express in fiction the truth of so much passion repressed inside. What strikes as especially surprising is the prisoners' capacity to access their own emotions in such a powerfully intimate way.
The use of color is also of paramount importance in the movie, which was almost completely shot in a very powerful and implacable digital black-and-white that scrutinizes the faces of the inmates-actors, thereby exposing them in the nakedness of their own "denied lives"
while facing the height of Shakespeare's lines and their invariably invasive content (Reverdito 2012)
As Lago (2012)
remarks, the interplay of lights and shadows is endowed with a strong plastic, matter-like value, which is itself tragic and powerful, as in a Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau film. Colors are only used in the beginning, in the end, and in a scene in which Gallo immerses himself in a mirage-like daydream of freedom while looking at a postcard of a Mediterranean island; colors always symbolize the feeling of freedom. The transition from the saturated colors of the performance to the sharp black-and-white of the reality of prison acutely highlights the loss of freedom and is instrumental in presenting prison life in an anti-naturalistic vein, with a brutal nakedness enhanced by a suggestive expressionist photography. The music composed by Giuliano Taviani (Vittorio's son) and Carmelo Travia makes for an intensely piercing soundtrack by crucially setting the tone and atmosphere of many scenes. This is one of those cases when, as Linda Hutcheon observes, "the aural is just as important as the visual" (2006, 40)
, in that it manages to "enhance and direct audience response to characters and action" (2006, 41)
and "can be used to connect inner and outer states in a less explicit way than do camera associations" (2006, 41)
Rehabilitiation and Regeneration
The convicts' meeting with Shakespeare is a utopian flash of light, as Shakespeare becomes a privileged vehicle for the exploration as well as the expression of inner freedom in a very peculiar environment, in which every action is severely controlled. The movie therefore also ends up touching upon the crucial issue of individual freedom in the face of authority and in the context of larger historical processes, an issue that has actually taken up a large part of critical discussions of the play in the last fifteen years.9
It is particularly apt that such a key question be explored in jail, where convicts have to deal every day with the consequences of their conflict with authority (Mamone 2012)
. A special liberty emerges in Rebibbia, the liberty to create new worlds, to become someone else, to get better; through theater, the inmates understand that they can be different, and the overlap of fiction and reality proves to be crucial to their rehabilitation and regenerative process. As Francesca Borrione (2014, 13)
remarks, while in Al Pacino's Looking for Richard
(1996) the actors look for themselves in Shakespeare, in Cesare deve morire
they look for Shakespeare inside themselves, thereby opening themselves to interpretation too. The underlying assumption seems to be that everyone can achieve redemption through culture, through theater and its creative potentialities, insofar as theater enables men to construe themselves after their own fashion, thereby giving them the opportunity to start building a new, alternative self and be "reborn" on stage. The case of Striano is emblematic in displaying the extent to which theater is able to foster a complete re-fashioning of the self: after serving his eight-year sentence in Rebibbia, he benefited from the indulto
(pardon) in 2006 and went on to become a professional actor.10
In most cases, however, the freedom experienced by the inmates is only momentary, since the overlap between stage and life abruptly comes to an end as the final curtain is lowered on their performance: the striking contrast between the imagined glory of ancient Rome and the actual gloom of the prison becomes apparent for both convicts and viewers, again. After the exaltation of both the descent into and the escape from themselves that have marked their performance, the convicts have to return to their cells: they quickly go back from Romans to outcasts. We are shown once again the sequence of the inmates being escorted back to their individual cells with only the rattle of keys in the locks as a soundtrack: this time, the effect is even more powerful than in the beginning as a result of all the emotion, depth, and authenticity that have touched us in the previous sixty minutes.
The rehabilitative and regenerating function of theater simultaneously seems, however, to carry disturbing retributive overtones, since this enlivening, reawakening contact with art leads some of the convicts fully and painfully to realize what they have lost because of their crimes. "Da quando ho conosciuto l'arte, 'sta cella è diventata 'na prigione" ("Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison," Cesare deve morire, 1:09:00-1:09:16)
, significantly laments Rega while looking straight into the camera as a way to conclude the movie. These lines — eerily redolent of the very same bitter sorrow informing Caliban's retort to Prospero "You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is I know how to curse" (The Tempest, 1.2.364-5)
— harshly jar with the widespread rhetoric of art as the liberator of the spirit par excellence and actually direct the viewers' focus on the convicts' excruciating awareness of what they could have been and never were or will be. Art, the Tavianis seem to imply, is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it is undoubtedly the best pathway to freedom in our grim reality; on the other, it is by that very same art that we become aware of the limits imposed on us by life, a realization that can bring about much existential suffering. Here, Shakespeare therefore becomes "a veritable Derridean pharmakon,"
which embodies at the same time "poison and cure, and [is] thus far removed from the incontrovertibly salvific 'Shakespeare' as catalyst of spiritual growth, reformation and redemption that emerges from previous 'prison Shakespeare' films" (Calbi 2014, 236-37)
. The regret for the time that has been lost is also apparent in Arcuri's remark about Caesar's De bello gallico
: "Pensare che al liceo mi sembrava così noioso!" ("To think that I considered it so boring in high school!," Cesare deve morire, 31:40-31:53)
, which may even be interpreted as a not-so-veiled accusation to the Italian State school system, apparently incapable of conveying high values without making them sound unbearably boring.
Unsurprisingly, given the unsettling nature of the movie, the transformative power of art turns out to be not only directed to the inmates but also to viewers, as the film ends up eliciting conflicting feelings and reactions, inasmuch as one often finds oneself oddly sympathizing with criminals, something most of us would not normally contemplate as a possibility. In this sense, the movie offers spectators a rare opportunity to reconsider their prejudices and simplistic assumptions about good and evil, nature and culture, nativism and behaviorism, and possibly start looking at both prison life and Shakespeare with different eyes.
||All translations from Italian and from regional dialects are mine.
||For a discussion of the intentional "imperfections" of such a circular structure, see Calbi 2014, 237-38.
||Prisoners-actors also importantly figure in Davide Ferrario's 2009 movie Tutta colpa di Giuda (Blame it on Judas).
||On Shakespeare behind Bars, see Marshall 2009, Tofteland and Cobb 2012, Herold 2014.
||Other aspects of the adaptation, though not devoid of significance, seem less important, namely the severe cuts to the text, the absence of female characters, and the excision of the quarrel scene between Cassius and Brutus.
||There are other similar examples. "Our course will seem too bloody" (Julius Caesar, 2.1.161) becomes "La giustizia non è 'no scannatoio!" ("Justice is not a slaughterhouse!," Cesare deve morire, 27:19-27:22). "Caesar will not come" (Julius Caesar, 2.2.68) becomes "Cesare 'un c'ha genio de venì" ("Caesar does not feel like coming," Cesare deve morire, 32:50-32:53). "Lest I be laughed at when I tell them so" (Julius Caesar, 2.2.70) becomes "Se no, i senatori, m'avessero a piglia p'o culo a me?" ("Otherwise, the senators will take the piss out of me," Cesare deve morire, 32:59-33:02).
||For the first time in their career, the Tavianis decided to use digital equipment. This allowed them to spare money but also provided them with much more material than usual from which to choose, so that editing ended up taking a very long time (Fratarcangeli 2012).
||See Roe 2002, Wells 2002, Phoon 2004, Grady 2010 and 2011.
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