CESERE DEVE MORIRE directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (Italy, 2012)

Brutus (Salvatore Striano) and Cassius (Cosimo Rega).

If you are of the ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ school of criminal justice then this movie will get you seriously hot under the collar.

The cast of the film of the play (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar)  are convicted felons held in a high security Rebibbia prison in Rome. Paolo Taviani said, when accepting the Golden Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival, that he hoped that it would encourage people to view these men not just as hardened criminals but as human beings. It’s a controversial message as we’re not talking about petty misdemeanours here, many of the actors are lifers incarcerated for heinous Mafia-related crimes.

The film begins and ends with the closing scene from the final theatrical performance of the play in front of an enthusiastic audience. These are filmed in colour, whereas the remainder of the film, showing the casting and rehearsals, are in black and white.

The Taviano Brothers with Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear Award for best movie.

What the prisoners lack in theatrical training is more than compensated by the commitment and intensity they bring to the roles. Power, freedom, trust, betrayal and murder are not abstract concepts so to get inside their roles they have no need of method acting. Often the parts they play bring up uncomfortable memories from the past.

To make the language reflect their natural speech, the play’s director, Fabio Cavalli, asks the men to use dialect rather than formal Italian. He wants to hear their own voices not have them deliver coached lines like luvvies.

I understand Italian but the crunched vowels and slurred diction often made it hard to follow. I don’t think this was always a serious handicap since it’s the hard tones that we are meant to hear, not any subtle subtext within the dialogues.

In casting the play, the men are asked to give their personal data (name, address, place of birth etc) in two ways. Firstly, relating this information voluntarily but in a tearful state and in the presence of their wives; then being force under duress to provide these details.

For obvious reasons, defiant rage comes more easily to them but these menacing looking guys are surprisingly effective in showing their vulnerable side too. Salvatore Striano in the part Brutus is particularly effective – he is now out of prison, having served eight years, and is a professional actor (he was also in Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah).

At the risk of sounding like a woolly liberal, I would say that playing these roles gives the men a sense of liberty  and recognition of group endeavour, a bitter irony given the reality of their isolated lives behind bars. Cosimo Rega , who plays Cassius, makes this very point in the final line of this brilliant movie: “Since I discovered art, this cell has become a prison”.