The venerable tradition of Shakespeare-behind-bars is upheld by the equally venerable Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. Shooting inside the walls of Rome’s high-security Rebibbia Prison, the Tavianis collaborate with a troupe of inmates on a production of Julius Caesar. Or do they? It’s not as simple as it sounds. The brothers, working closely with the institution’s theater director Fabio Cavalli, have scripted and staged the audition, casting, and rehearsal processes, and have their cameras rolling as a performance unfolds before a civilian audience.
The project’s documentary-style beginning and end, shot in color, are offset by an arty black-and-white midsection—a veritable film within the film. Here, as the inmates act out their roles, moving freely about the stark and brutal prison architecture, the substance of the play and the reality of their circumstances merge in uncanny, sometimes ironic ways. Passions flare as the case for the honorable murder of Caesar is made. The words are Shakespeare’s, but they take on a heightened meaning when the actors happen to be killers serving life sentences.
The liberal desire for prison reform, with its intrinsic belief that criminals can be rehabilitated in part through access to high art and culture, doesn’t sit particularly well with the Tavianis. Aristotle taught that the practice of drama can provide for catharsis. One inmate, in the final moment of the film, begs to differ: “Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison.”