Super Tuscans

Vittorio Taviani and Paolo Taviani, NYC, 10/2/12

Vittorio Taviani and Paolo Taviani, NYC, 10/2/12

In their new film, “Caesar Must Die,” the Taviani Brothers join convicts housed in the maximum security section of Rebibbia, the penitentiary on the outskirts of Rome, as they audition for, rehearse and perform Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in the prison theater.

The filmmakers learned of the unusual troupe at Rebibbia from a friend who had been moved by a staged reading there of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”  Equally moved when they attended a performance of the chosen cantos, the Tavianis proposed a new project, filming the process of mounting “Julius Caesar,” to Fabio Cavalli, an established theatrical director who has been working with Rebibbia inmates since 2002.  Cavalli and the prisoners responded quickly and enthusiastically.

The rehearsals, shot with the tonal richness of black and white (the stage performance is recorded in saturated color), move from inside the prison’s cement walls, in cells and common areas, to its yard, drenched in light.  The prisoners (many of whom are physically imposing and have faces that can hold the camera), are led by Cavalli, supported in their choice to perform in their native Roman, Calabrian, Sicilian, Apulian and Neopolitan dialects.  As the actors use their emotions and personal histories to inform their performances as they explore themes of the play–friendship, murder, betrayal, honor–the work meshes with the men’s daily reality behind bars.

The film’s score composed by Vittorio’s son, Giuliano, and Carmelo Travia, dominated by a saxophone, echoes and enhances the film/play’s exploration of violence, suffering and remorse.  Vittorio said, “Saxophone is the instrument of big melancholia.”  And back in his cell after the triumphant performance, expert actor Cosimo Rega (who plays Cassius) looks into the camera and says, “Since I’ve known art, this cell is a prison.”

I was very excited to shoot Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (born in Pisa in 1931 and 1929, respectively), who have forged a legendary joint career as writer/directors on fiction and documentary films since the 1960s, winning innumerable awards including the Palme d’Or in 1977 for “Padre Padrone” and Berlin’s 2012 Golden Bear for “Caesar Must Die.”

Although the suite where the Tavianias were doing press while in town for the 2012 New York Film Festival was large enough, it was filled with generic expensive hotel furniture, big and heavy, and surrounded by walls of glass, presenting, like every location, its own batch of challenges.  But if I’d had the expanse and options of my studio, I still would have chosen to frame tight on their faces.

“Caesar Must Die” will open Wednesday, February 6 at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, followed by a nationwide release to select cities.

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