Swans Commentary » swans.com May 21, 2012  



Society's Dead Look Into A Killing


by Peter Byrne





"Denmark's a prison."

"Theatre is anthropology, anthropology is theatre, in both situations as subject, as actor, you live in disguise, in a situation of not belonging to the reality which you are living. Essentially, both are the craft of solitude and revolt."
—Eugenio Barba, letter to M.D. McCamish

Cassius, who has just pitched in to murder Julius Caesar, says in Shakespeare's play of that name:

"Stoop then, and wash [in blood]. How many ages hence/ Should this lofty scene be acted over,/ In states unborn, and accents yet unknown!"


(Swans - May 21, 2012)   The political assassination of 44 B.C., scripted by Shakespeare in 1599, has been re-enacted once more, this time in Rome's Rebibbia high-security prison. The performance figures in Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's film Cesare deve morire (Caesar Must Die). In February 2012, it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for best film. The British filmmaker Mike Leigh presided over the jury, but there were doubts in Berlin about the choice. Other films of the four hundred shown were made with more technical daring and narrative innovation. Many were closer to contemporary events or served up more intense drama. But all prize-giving of the sort is a charade, because there is no "best" film. It comes down to opting, among worthy efforts, for the one -- let's not be afraid to say it -- closest to our heart. The choice turns on what touches us most, which depends, of course, on a filmmaker's ability but crucially on our personal preoccupations. If incarceration and Shakespeare rivet us, the decision of Mike Leigh's jury will be the right one.

The octogenarian Italian directors made Cesare deve morire entirely within Rebibbia prison. The story, which is fiction in the guise of documentary, follows the prisoners' preparation for a performance of Shakespeare's play. We have glimpses of auditions, of key rehearsals, and of the final presentation on stage. At times, though not often, the actors reveal what's going on in their more personal lives. However, to know their individuality we have mostly to rely on their physical presence and their penal sentences that are spelled out at one point beneath their photos.

Incarceration in the Western world has grown at a rate unparalleled in the history of humanity. To note the extreme case, America's prison population has risen in fifty years from less than five hundred thousand to well over two million. Italy has in a lesser way followed that trend. A smaller proportion of its population is in jail, but facilities housing prisoners are generally more ramshackle, sometimes medieval. There is a serious prison reform movement in line with a tradition that goes back to the mid-eighteenth century and Cesare Beccaria. He was not only the first penologist, but the first writer ever to advance arguments against the death penalty. Since 1889, save for the Fascist interlude, Italy has not known capital punishment. But Beccaria also illustrates an endemic flaw in the Italian system. Enlightened opinion and regulation often never find their way into practice. Thus a law called for every prison in the country to have a library. But in the year 2000 it turned out that there were only ten libraries among the two hundred and five Italian prisons. Extreme overcrowding is the crowning evil, but there is also an absence of basic needs and services. One result is an awesome suicide rate among inmates.

Art can offer no more than a palliative to a problem of this size. Public awareness can be increased by artists like the photographer Francesco Cocco. He spent several years surveying Italian prisons and published his results in Prisons 2006, Logos, ISBN-10: 8879405632. His photos can be seen with a text in English by Adriano Sofri. Cocco's work shows the diabolical revenge the very architecture of prisons works on inmates and the fragile gestures they raise in their defense.

The use of theatre in prisoner rehabilitation (i.e., keeping inmates marginally human) has been around for some time and came out of what has been called the "Rehabilitation Era," circa 1960. Inmates in Germany, using a smuggled script, performed Waiting For Godot just eight months after its premiere in 1953. Outside actors brought Beckett's play to San Quentin prison in 1957 where they used the gallows for a stage. The visit resulted in the founding of the San Quentin Drama Workshop. Similar prison activities began to appear in most Western countries, where they continue to operate today. Optimists feel that the practice, apart from keeping prisoners busy, has given the public a new view of inmates as people like themselves but with less fortunate pasts. Some analysts, however, point out that theatre in prison has the same function as religious meetings, intramural sports, therapy, newsletters, and similar endeavors. The inmates can temporarily doff their prison masks, take control for a while, have their say, and gain confidence. The fact that the prison regime has granted these "carnival" interludes, during which its power doesn't seem absolute, simply affirms how absolute it is. Re-masked, the inmates continue their normal existence as civil society's walking dead.

Considerable documentation exists, including films, on prison theatre workshops worldwide. All the same, it should be underlined that the Tavianis's Cesar deve morire is not a documentary film. Nor is it a commentary on the theatre program at Rebibbia. It is a work of art, a fiction centered on the production of a play at the prison and adopting a play-within-a-play structure.

There are epic poems like Dante's or Milton's that have tried to portray within their pages the relationship of man to God. Beethoven and Shostakovich wrote symphonies that encapsulate our drive for liberty. Hamlet, within five acts, says the first and last word on human consciousness being the center of everything. The Taviani brothers, grandfatherly and provincial, speak in a much fainter voice. But their art in Cesare deve morire gives us much more than a record of events. Their cinematic poem undertakes to tell us what incarceration means to human beings. Its seventy-six minutes let us understand the unbearable burden of being isolated and excluded from society. The film allows us to feel the lethal departure from what is natural, the calculated anti-humanity of any prison regime.

Here the Tavianis could not be closer to our times. The construction of bigger and better (i.e., more constricting) prisons is one enterprise that hasn't been slowed by the economic crisis. Washington is still bickering with the Hamid Karzai government over who owns the prison by the Bagram US airfield in Afghanistan. It's hard to believe that any decent nation wouldn't rush to get rid of the place where US and Afghan authorities have used the most bestial torture. It holds over three thousand prisoners, many of whom can't be tried because of insufficient evidence. The surprise is that Washington is now building for itself a new prison not far from the disputed one at a cost of thirty-six million dollars.

Fitting the Taviani brothers into the story of Italian cinema is a melancholy exercise. But then so is any perusal of the country's movies that looks back from the present. Martin Scorsese's stunning documentary that dips into this history, My Voyage to Italy (1999, 245 minutes) understandably ends with Fellini. Having become something of an Italo-American elder statesman, Scorsese has to observe political correctness. Moreover, his own moviemaking has declined in its own -- we might say Italian-American -- way. While Italian films shriveled, Scorsese's fell into big-budget bloat. He was somebody else in 1972 with Mean Streets and in 1976 with Taxi Driver.

Scorsese the historian sees Neorealism and its pioneers Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti as the beginning of greatness. Italy in ruins had no alternative but to restart from zero. Film stock and money for actors were as scarce as food and housing. The tremendous task of reversing the world's perception of Italy and its people had only the makeshift to proceed with. Making do was hardly new in the country but now directors had to improvise with empty hands. They reached for people in the streets and the very ruins to fill their films. A certain amount of truth saw the light by default since there were no resources to tell lies. Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni joined the founders to carry on the original impulse of the 1940s. As each adjusted to the changing times, some startling flourishes appeared.

Touching only the summits, Scorsese has to ignore the rich vein of Commedia all'italiana (Comedy in the Italian way) that developed from the 1960s on. Directors led by Mario Monticelli, Pietro Germi, Dino Risi, and Luigi Comencini scrutinized Italian society with an irony that often cut like a scalpel. Scorsese charitably passed over the crisis of the 1980s when commercial vulgarity began to push the surviving auteurs out of the movie houses. The forty-year run of a vigorous tradition had in effect ended. Fellini's Ginger and Fred of 1986 can be considered its gravestone. The film was, among other things, a merciless satire of Italian TV. In 1984 Bettino Craxi's Socialist Party had allowed Silvio Berlusconi to breach the public service monopoly of the state broadcaster and launch his national commercial network. Berlusconi once said the mental age of television viewers was eleven. Now he set about satisfying it.

The Tavianis' first encounter with Neorealism overwhelmed them. A viewing of Rossellini's 1946 Paisan made the brothers cineasts on the spot. The title of their first short, San Miniato, luglio '44, says it all. In 1954 they looked back to their Tuscan hometown at the time when the events Rossellini had filmed were happening. But characteristically the Tavianis came afterwards. Like other Italian filmmakers they would absorb Neorealist method. They left the studios and filmed documentary style on location, preferably in a specific social context. Naturalness and immediacy was their watchword. The professional actors pressed into service had to accommodate their style to the non-actors who worked with them.

Nevertheless the Tavianis would continue to look backward. They found immediacy only in the past. Through twenty or so films over sixty years they would remain "historians." This wasn't surprising in a culture like Italy's that is decidedly more historically orientated than, say, that of France or Great Britain. But it wasn't the way of the great Neorealist directors who recounted events just after they happened in settings in which they could have happened.

It follows that we do not go to the Tavianis to learn about the surface of Italian society now. In the 1970s when Commedia all'italiana had the country hurting with laughter over its mores, the Tavianis gave us two films set in the past. Saint Michael Had A Rooster, 1971, was based on a Tolstoy short story and the life of Mikhail Bakunin's friend Errico Malatesta; Allonsanfan, 1974, told of a weary revolutionary drawn back into the fray almost against his will. The heroes of both films are anarchists. Italy in the 1970s was rife with political violence and the Tavianis backed the campaign against Milan police commissioner Luigi Calabrese, who was accused of the murder of an anarchist.

The die seemed to have been cast. The Tavianis kept away from comedy and could be called earnest, with the rider that there was always brio in their seriousness. They were alive to political issues but would only approach them at a distance, as late arrivals at a revolution might. They were creators who always came "afterwards." Time and time again, moreover, their scripts would be grounded in great writers of the past, such as Goethe, Pirandello, and, repeatedly, Tolstoy. This is not to say that they made "literary" or wordy films. Their cinema language was highly visual, but they needed the mould of great literature to contain their images. These were always carefully composed, classically beautiful just short of aesthetic mannerism. Their camera movements could surprise but were mainly sober. They were devotees of the long tracking shot.

In contrast to their taste for world literature, the Tavianis' films kept within the borders of Italy, exploring it at length. Typically they transposed Tolstoy's story Father Sergius to 18th Century Naples in The Sun Also Shines At Night, 1990. This meant their films were little known internationally. Their late attempt to enlarge their public and take on California -- characteristically seen historically -- in Good Morning, Babylon, 1987, was a signal failure. It's ironic that their greatest international acclaim came with Padre Padrone, 1977, which highlighted patriarchal society in Sardinia and the problems posed by the speakers of its obscure dialect. The foreign public delighted in the view of what they took for an ageless Mediterranean way of life. But in Italy the film stirred political controversy as to whether local dialects alienated citizens from civil society.

Not surprising, then, that the Tavianis chose Shakespeare's very political play as a prism with which to consider incarceration. Julius Caesar touches their theme of a weathered political activist's disillusion. The aging revolutionary in Allonsanfan (played by the excellent Marcello Mastroianni) also had doubts about his earlier idealism but could not extricate himself from the action it had led him to set in motion.

Brutus ensconced in his purity sits in only slight discomfort on his reputation of moral superiority. American directors of the play in the politicized 1930s regularly presented the character as a soft-centered liberal. What bothers Brutus is the danger to the Republic in Caesar's creeping usurpation of power. More practical, decisive, and ruthless men decide to preempt the peril by assassinating Caesar. They need the prestige of Brutus's backing and put their plan to him. At first hesitant, he agrees but insists on taking charge. He feels the murder will be less a murder if he wraps it in good, liberal intentions.

The conspirators all take a hand in the killing. Brutus, however, does not allow the practical men also to kill Caesar's most powerful associate, Anthony, who is as practical, decisive, and ruthless as themselves. Brutus feels his public relations oratory can smooth over the assassination with no unpleasant consequences. But Anthony, no guileless liberal, outdoes Brutus in manipulation of the public. As always with this playwright, the plebs are as easily turned about as chaff in a change of wind. Brutus and his co-conspirators find they have to flee the city in fear for their lives.

The two factions prepare to meet in war. Anthony and the adopted son of Caesar on one side; Brutus, the conspirators, and their forces on the other. But Brutus has lost his ardor. His wife has killed herself. More important, he feels guilty about Caesar's death. As commander-in-chief this renders him ineffectual and self-destructive. The practical men around him whom he wouldn't let kill Anthony must now face that dangerous warrior in battle. Moreover, Brutus's insistence on displaying his virtue in condemning bribes and money-raising has weakened his side's preparations. The last straw is his incautious battle plan whose object seems to be to get the whole business over and done with quickly. It turns out disastrous for his forces, but seems to be what he wished for, and Brutus commits suicide. Over his body, his virtue-free but thriving enemy, Anthony, extolls Brutus's virtue. Shakespeare was also an ironist.

Julius Caesar's nooks and crannies are stuffed with lesser and different dramas, fine runs of untranslatable poetry, and acute social aperçus, verbal jokes, and more. There was no possibility that the improvised actors the Tavianis imagine at work on the Rebibbia performance could have rendered or even understood all that. To show them attempting it would have been to film a comedy, which was far from the directors' intentions. What they do show is something more interesting and rare. A couple of civilian helpers and the unschooled actors, a miscellany of a high-security prison -- lifers, Mafiosi, killers, chronic petty criminals -- take from Shakespeare's essential plot what they recognize as their own. Their material is not only the Sixteenth Century Englishman's, but themselves. This is self-dramaturgy as they speak the lines in their own various regional dialects.

Despair, vendetta, brotherhood, betrayal, knife-wielding skill, and violence in every degree are these actors' daily bread. Shakespeare's two female roles, the wives of Brutus and Caesar, have crucial parts in the original. At first we feel their absence in this slimmed-down, convict version. Then we realize that the empty space they leave is one of the points being made. Prison is a world without women, only one aspect of the unnaturalness that serves as punishment. The penal world is patriarchal, but it's the inmates who are the neutered underclass.

The most beautiful moment of Cesare deve morire comes when we see the end of the finished performance. All the actors return to the stage for a curtain call. The public applauds in the usual way. The troupe, standing shoulder to shoulder, then raises a tremendous cry of victory. The detonation startles because of signifying much more than actors thanking their audience. These men have, at least symbolically, resisted and won. The prison regime, a forcing house of alienation whose overall aim is to destroy life according to nature, has been shown up for what it is.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 21, 2012