“His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man.””

–   Anthony, in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.1

For Vittorio and Paolo Taviani, film is the transmitter of truth from art. Born in Tuscany to an anti-fascist lawyer father, they began as career journalists before pivoting to film in 1960 with their debut documentary co-directed with Joris Ivens, L’Italia non è un paese povero (Italy is not a poor country). Capturing the human struggle of the ordinary citizen has been a consistent motif in their films, which range from revolutionary fables to avant-garde dramas. Caesar Must Die (2012), which won a Golden Bear at the 2012 Berlinale Film Festival, achieves a middle ground between documentary and literary adaptation.

Caesar Must Die opens with the dramatic final act of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as Brutus begs his companions to help him end his own life. It is an incredibly strong, unsettling performance by lead actor Salvatore Striano, full of despair and ache. As the scene closes, an intimate theatre setting is revealed: an ecstatic audience receives the players with a standing ovation. As the crowd filters out, we notice the unusually heavy police presence on the scene. Then, as the colour drains from the screen, we are escorted to the maximum-security prison Rebibbia; our actors are revealed as incarcerated persons.

Far beyond the opening scenes, every moment in Caesar Must Die is so artfully staged, every mise-en-scène so disorientating, that it is difficult to tell at times whether what is occurring is real, scripted or somewhere in-between. Nothing feels trustworthy: the transition to black and white is both harsh and disorientating, and the passage of time is marked in a non-linear fashion. What is certain is that all of the ‘actors’ are in fact non-actors; each is a real convict, as the names of the cast flashes up on screen, along with their crimes. Some have been associated with Italian crime syndicates such as the Mafia or the Camorra, some have been involved in drug trafficking, and some have committed murder. Early on, we are led through their audition process for the Julius Caesar play, where they are told to give their names, family history and birthplace, firstly as though they are saddened and grieving, and then as though they are filled with spite for the authorities. Through each actor’s audition, we are treated to a wide range of sincere performances, with each man demonstrating his capacity for both pathos and rage. Every word uttered in the audition hall feels honest, as though behind the delivery of each imagined tragedy is real trauma sitting just below the surface. This also serves as a device to inform us of the diverse backgrounds of each man, who hail from various parts of Italy and come from a broad variety of social backgrounds. This sincerity of character transfers well into the reading room, where each man is told to keep his natural accent for the part.

As the men prepare for the play, they can be observed rehearsing in various parts of the prison, from the corridor to their cells. In a poignant way, each man takes his role very seriously, practising lines with steadfast dedication. No doubt the themes of Shakespeare’s  play, which retells the betrayal and assassination of Caesar by his own parliament, relates to the internal power struggles of organised crime syndicates that these men have survived. The line between fiction and reality is increasingly worn away; the deeper the actors get into their preparations, the more the play seems to bleed into prison life. And of course, the play also disturbingly mimics the contemporary situation in Italy, which itself had faced recent governmental collapse and instability, and many “Caesars” had begun to occupy the political sphere.2 The year before, in 2011, Italy had been on the brink of total bankruptcy when the national debt’s interest rates skyrocketed out of control, and previously in 2008, after a shaky coalition collapsed, the Prodi government had also fallen. Italy has long been marred by a history of structural and political weakness, and this is reflected in the moral grey-zone of unlawful activity that each prisoner had been a part of. 

Actors refer to each other by their character names by accident, openly discuss their actual similarities to their Shakespearean counterparts, and mimic the play’s interpersonal conflicts in real fights with one another. The camera rests, mostly still, framing each scene, whether in the cells or prison yard, as though it were the stage. Thus, whether some of the rehearsed scenes are spontaneous or staged is tricky to discern. During a dialogue between Brutus and Cassius (Striano and Cosimo Rega, in two of the most distinguished performances in the film), the pacing and reactions to the script seems improvised, until the play’s director steps out from the shadows to change some blocking. Even though these are not professional actors, they are all remarkably adaptable to working with the director’s vision, and he seems to uncover some impassioned thespian erupting from the heart of each man.

In an extended rehearsal, the players take to the prison courtyard to perform the scene of Caesar’s murder and subsequent political fallout. Each line is dripping with subtext, with the makeshift theatrical space seeming like an abstract realm that shadows the prison it occupies. Other prisoners, yelling from their cells, and guards, unsure of whether to force the prisoners out of the yard, are captivated. The film ends as it begins: circling back to the full-colour theatre for the final act. We are back in the real world, and in the real theatre; it is more of an artifice than ever. Perhaps the most sobering thing one can ever witness is the prisoner’s anticlimactic crawl back to their concrete purgatory; the men forever changed after their triumphant performance, then to have their smiles sucked out of their hollowed, empty faces. Cassius turns to camera and remarks, in his quietude: “Since I got to know art, the cell has become a prison.” As with the rest of the film, though this is clearly a conceit, it reveals some truth that would have been lost in the hands of lesser filmmakers.

Cesare deve morire/Caesar Must Die (2012 Italy 75 minutes)

Prod Co: Rai Cinema Prod: Grazia Volpi Dir: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani Scr: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani Phot: Simone Zampagni Ed: Roberto Perpignani Mus: Giuliano Taviani, Carmelo Travia

Cast: Salvatore Striano, Cosimo Rega, Giovanni Arcuri, Antonio Frasca, Juan Dario Bonetti


  1. William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, ed. Arthur Humphreys (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, first published 1623), Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 74-76.
  2. Silvia Bigliazzi, “Caesar Must (Not) Die. Italian Political “Caesars” in the New Millennium” in Staging 21st Century Tragedies: Theatre, Politics, and Global Crisis, Avra Sidiropoulou, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2022), pp. 81-94.

About The Author

Faith Everard is an independent film scholar and former radio producer from Melbourne. She has a deep passion for cinema old and new.

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