Brutus’ body lies in wake as fellow Romans exalt his deeds, both in the Senate and on the battlefield. The stage lights fade out and house lights fade in. Audience members begin to stand up, until everyone is on their feet clapping. The all-male cast takes a collective bow, then cheers at the crowd.
A fine production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar ends to great acclaim. Attendees go back to their lives. And then the guards show up to escort the actors back to their cells.
Welcome to Rome’s Rebibbia Prison, where a theater troupe comprised of high-security inmates bring literary to the stage. This is the (very real) setting of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s riveting (fictional) feature Caesar Must Die, and one of its many intertextual pleasures is seeing how the veteran filmmaking siblings blur the line between illusion and reality, between scripted dialogue and the actors’ raw, culled-from-life-experience commentary. The Tavianis, who have been making movies since the 1950s, tend to mix professional and nonprofessional performers in their work. Caesar Must Die is no exception.
The jubilant sequence that opens the film is the end result of a taxing, laborious process, so once we see Caesar‘s Romans return to the solitude of their jail cells, the Tavianis take us six months back in time to take viewers step by step in order to show how troupe director Fabio Cavalli, who plays himself, turns this motley crew of alleged drug traffickers, robbers and Mafiosos into a compelling stage ensemble. What’s striking about the Tavianis’ chamber piece/docudrama hybrid is how deftly it sidesteps the clichés one associates with prison movies. There are no riots on display, no warring factions fighting for dominance. The only bloodshed here is of the pretend kind, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less hard-hitting when it happens.
The directors’ aesthetic is Spartan: bare-bones, stripped-down. With the exception of scenes showing the finished play, Caesar Must Die was shot in black and white using digital cameras. There are echoes of Rossellini and Cassavettes, as well as Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, but the film’s political awareness is unmistakably the Tavianis’ own. Following an amusing audition sequence in which Cavalli asks inmates to give basic information as if they were acting out two very different scenarios, the movie dives headfirst into rehearsals. The role of Caesar (Giovanni Arcuri) goes to a balding, heavy-set man in his fifties who oozes leadership. Cassius (Cosimo Rega) is played by an older convict who finds poignant parallels between the character he’s playing and himself. “Excuse me, but it feels like this Shakespeare lived in my street,” he observes at one point.
The real standout in Caesar Must Die, however, is Sasà (real-life jailbird-turned-thespian Salvatore Striano), who effectively shifts the movie’s focus away from Caesar with his electrifying take on Brutus. This isn’t the calculating intellectual who spearheads a violent overthrow of a leader who, in his mind, has turned into a tyrant. At once brooding and tortured, Striano’s Brutus commands the stage – and, by extension, the screen – with visceral aplomb. When he says to his fellow usurpers, “This is not an assassination, this is a sacrifice,” you can’t help but believe him.
Rather than stretch out the creative process, Caesar Must Die hurtles forward at a steady clip. At a tight, organic 76 minutes, the movie doesn’t waste a single frame. Even when it plays like an extended acting exercise, it earns its catharsis by exploring, with clear-eyed compassion and storytelling economy, how these marginalized exorcise their demons and, for a few hours, allow their art to grant them freedom in the confines of a theater stage.
For discerning moviegoers, this weekend presents a study in extremes. The polar opposite of the Tavianis’ austere brand of neorealism comes in the trippy form of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, which arrived at local screens last week and merits a look. At a narrative level, the movie chronicles four financially strapped coeds’ increasingly dangerous misadventures in St. Pete among fellow binge-drinking, sexually promiscuous college students. Korine nevertheless appears to be less concerned with the particulars of his Bonnie and Clyde-on-ecstasy tale than in creating an alluring atmosphere.
Two members of this nubile quartet, God-fearing Faith and the more corruptible Candy, are played by former Disney teen stars, Selena Gomez and High School Musical‘s Vanessa Hudgens, which along with the film’s naturalistic, free-floating structure, make what is already an eyebrow-raising depiction of teen decadence even more subversive. Then there’s the stunt casting of James Franco as “Alien,” the cornrow-wearing, gun-toting Anglo gangsta rapper who takes the girls under his shady wing after bailing them out of jail. The character is so outlandish that you can totally see the Oscar-nominated star A-C-T-I-N-G, but after threatening to throw the film out of whack, Franco settles into a laid-back groove. After a while you can’t envision Spring Breakers without his wacky presence.
Korine takes an unfortunate detour into subpar, straight-to-DVD hijinks when he introduces a rival drug lord who feels threatened by Alien’s increasing power. Thankfully, the crime-war storyline doesn’t intrude on the film’s lyrical revelry of slo-mo bouncing breasts and coked-out partiers. Unlike collaborator Larry Clark, for whom he wrote the screenplays for Kids and Ken Park, Korine doesn’t come across as a dirty old man when he fetishizes the girls’ bodies. He’s not merely ogling them, exactly; he’s luxuriating in their burgeoning sexuality in a way that comes across, at least to this reviewer, as rather empowering.
If the filmmaker’s tendency to repeat characters’ banal lines and keep reverting to the same glimpses of underage bacchanalia over and over comes off as a tad redundant, that’s part of Korine’s cinema-as-rave design. What he’s made suggests a Girls Gone Wild video as remade by Terrence Malick, an arthouse film with its sights set on mainstream appeal, though judging by the walkouts at the showing I attended last Saturday at a Broward multiplex, not everyone is on board with what Korine is going for. It’s certainly bound to give you a buzz.
Caesar Must Die opens Friday at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (mbcinema.com). Spring Breakers continues offering its unique brand of kiss-kiss-bang-bang excess at area theaters. Proceed with caution.