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Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Still at work in their 80s, the Taviani brothers, Paolo & Vittorio, had all but dropped out of the film conversation after 1993's FIORILE when they resurfaced to take Berlin’s Golden Bear for this unusual documentary that isn’t a documentary at all. Set in Rebibbia’s High Security Prison in Italy, it follows along as a select group of long-term inmates audition, rehearse, stage & eventually perform their intimate, emotionally charged version of Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR. (The text seems to be a modern Italian translation.) Book-ended by scenes filmed in color at a performance, most of the film is in an unexpectedly glamorizing monochrome that abstracts the drab prison settings into a series of artful geometrical constructs that look more elegantly minimalist than confining. Even odder, after starting in relatively straight documentary form (fascinatingly so in an audition sequence that puts inmates thru their paces by the simplest of means, reciting basic personal info, first with sadness/then in defiance), the Tavianis use this as a jumping off point, continuing with what amounts to a staged version of a documentary. A recreation of what happened during the prison rehearsal process, played as a drama on top of Shakespeare’s. Some of this doesn’t quite come off, depending on how good the prisoners are as actors, but is almost always fascinating. And, at its infrequent best, as when the play text is ‘caught’ within a prison space, gleaning something of the flavor & spontaneity of a work like Orson Welles’ film of OTHELLO/’52. CAESAR is one of those rare films that may be better when it's not quite working. (And pay special attention to the hefty inmate playing Caesar, he’s a natural.)

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