Teaching Murder to Murderers
An exclusive interview with Vittorio Taviani, one of the last of adwindling breed of master filmmakers who put Italy at the forefront of cinematic relevance.

24 November 2012

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Caesar Must Die (winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival) is the newest and most striking film by brother directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, two of the last of the dwindling breed of master filmmakers who put Italy at the forefront of cinematic relevance in the 1960s and ‘70s.  In the film, they take their cameras into Rome’s Rebibbia prison, a high security facility housing some of Italy’s most dangerous criminals, in order to film—using the inmates as actors—a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  Echoing a history of Italian cinema, from the bravura theatricality of Fellini to the street-level authenticity of Italian neo-realism (especially in the startling performances of non-professional actors), Caesar Must Die is a film that is unique, part documentary, part filmed performance, part film within a film.  It doesn’t feel stagey because the staging is the drama; it’s less about Shakespeare than the hard parallels between the play and actors playing in it: the notions of honor, of despotism, of control, and of necessary killing.  The play itself is just a walk-on character; it’s not performed in it’s entirety but only in non-chronological snippets.  Instead, it serves as a catalyst for the men’s humanisation.

Garth Twa: Caesar Must Die is a technically and thematically novel film.  I’ve never seen a film like it.  What was the impetus for making it?

Vittorio Taviani: We [brother Paolo, co-director] make movies when we encounter something that takes us by surprise, so in order to take us by surprise it must be new or at least our perception of it must be that way.  Every time we make a movie it is a completely new page for us.  But once we look back at the movies we made they then tend to appear like chapters in a book.  But, in particular, talking about this movie, the murder in Shakespeare’s play and the tragedy enacted in the prison is still a dichotomy that causes problems to my brother and I.

GT: A fictional murder enacted by people who’ve committed non-fictional murders.

VT: Yes.  When we thought about making a movie with the inmates who are criminals, we thought immediately of Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, which is a story about a murder.

GT: And Italian.

VT: Bravo.  It’s an Italian story, it’s a Roman story, in particular that sentence that Julius Caesar utters upon being stabbed by Brutus, ‘Even you, my son,’ is something that belongs to the collective unconscious.  And, if you take in particular the relationship between Brutus and Caesar, it has all the elements—friendship, betrayal, murder, violence—all the elements that they, the inmates, lived in their real lives and that they experienced.  And, as you know, one of the best scenes in Shakespeare’s version is the scene when Antony and Brutus confront each other, and Mark Antony, talking to the Roman people, describes Brutus as a man of honor and that obviously, the people belonging to Camorra and Mafia talk of themselves as men of honor.  Now I’m going to tell you an episode on this subject.  When we were about to shoot the scene of the murder, everybody knew it in the jail, so there was tension there was silence.

GT: You could feel that watching the movie, seeing prisoners that weren’t characters in the film, or at least not established characters, looking down out the windows.

VT: When we started shooting we started positioning the actors—say, Brutus you go on that step, you hide your sword—so we started composing the scene, and explaining to our actors, ‘Right, this a moment to concentrate, to bring out of you that dark strength that will bring you to want somebody’s…death, to want blood, so you have to—‘and then we sort of bit our tongues and stopped—are we crazy? We’re teaching a murder to murderers? But quite the contrary, they understood and they told my brother and I, ‘No, let’s go on.  Because this way, by enacting such a violent scene, we can take it out and in some way get rid of it, free ourselves from it.’

GT: So almost like therapy?

VT: (laughs ruefully)

GT: Dangerous therapy.

VT: I would rather say that that’s the strength of art.  After a few days, in a scene that we shot but unfortunately had to leave on the cutting room floor, one of the inmates was writing a letter to his wife, and in his letter he wrote, ‘Dear Louisa, in a little while I’m going to do my performance.  Do come and see me because when I’m acting, I reach a point where I think I can almost forgive myself.’  It’s something that really moves you.  And if you take the speech, for instance, that Brutus gives over Caesar’s corpse, and when he says, ‘I loved him, but I had to kill him because he was becoming a tyrant’, in that verb, to kill, my brother and I saw in his eyes that this was somebody who had actually witnessed somebody being killed, that he was reliving it.

GT: Were there any problems or difficulties in filming in a prison, things like props, things like accessibility? I was surprised that, being prison, they had a knife, or at least a hard utensil of some sort.  Was that difficult to do, to get a weapon in their hands?  I know even a toothbrush can be used to make a shiv.

VT: All these elements were definitely present.  For instance, one day when we were there shooting, we noticed that there was some disquiet going on and then we learned that another knife had been discovered.  But then this particular incident resolved itself and we’re not sure how.  Over the length of the shooting there were some constrictions when the other prisoners had to go through the normal running of the prison but we didn’t have any constrictions about the overall event of the shooting.  But if we’re talking about the people performing, they were staying in the maximum security wing of the prison.  They could not have contact with any other inmate, even within their own maximum security wing.

GT: There is a brilliant scene, after their performance of the play, of a prisoner-actor being locked up, put back in solitary, and he says something like, ‘How can I go back, because I’ve awakened something in my life.’

VT: ‘Now that I discovered art, this cell has become a prison.’ That sentence was actually taught to my brother and I by the very guy who says it, and it is one of the core reasons why we wanted to do the film because it is a very strong and wonderful sentence, it’s also very terrible.

GT:  Very terrible.  Perhaps you did something inadvertently cruel in that you gave them something in life—art, a taste of life, hope—that was very beautiful, and it made, by contrast, their lives after very bleak, more wretched than before.  Ignorance is bliss.

VT: No, if you think about it, these people up to the point when they came in contact with art, they were living under a dark narrow horizon and all of a sudden this sort of almost lifted and they started living life in colour with all the contrast that we know of.  But once they came in contact with this they realized they have deprived themselves of this, but they became men who have a self-awareness, and my brother and I think that this partly would be something that would afford them to go towards the pain that is waiting for them in their future lives.  Some graduated in jail, some wrote books, some didn’t…

GT: Some went on to careers as actors. The thing that I found was most moving, most profound about the film was the performances.  The actors were so unguarded, as it were, so trusting, so candid. You got brilliant performances out of people who weren’t actors before.  I imagine trust is hard to come by in maximum security prison.

VT: Before we started shooting we had to assign the parts, and, for instance, my brother and I said the part of Octavius was going to played by that guy, but the guy who we wanted to play Octavius said, ‘No, I can’t play that part because the group has assigned that role to somebody else and I’m not going to betray a friend.’  Because in those surroundings you do not betray a friend.  The head honcho, the top dog there, who really belongs to Camorra so he was chief outside as well as inside, he approached my brother and I and we were rather perplexed by what we’d just been told and he said, ‘Well, you must never forget that you are in a very particular situation here.  For instance, I made three orphans.’

GT: I’ll make you a movie you can’t refuse! [I didn’t actually say this out loud, of course. Instead I just said, ‘Wow.’]

VT: So my brother and I said to him, ‘Cinema means seeking the truth.  We’re here in order to choose the right tools to reach the truth.  In cinema, there is collaboration but the last word remains with the director.  So we said we’re going to leave now, if you want us back, you’ll have to call us back.  So we went back home and spent some sleepless nights because we really wanted to shoot this movie, but there was a danger.  After four or five days, they called us back, they said, ‘You can come back to Rebibbia.’  We were told there were quite a lot of meetings amongst the inmates, and when we entered the room after returning we were welcomed with great applause.  And we were told, ‘We talked amongst ourselves and we decided we want to do this, and we want you to be the directors and the last word rests with you. Because when you talked to us you looked at us straight in the eye and nobody else does that, so because you did that, you’re the boss.’

GT: So you and Paolo went head to head with the head of the Camorra.  And won!

VT: It’s because we looked him straight in the eye.

GT: That’s harder than dealing with producers at Cinecitta.

VT: But I want to stress that once we overcame this problem the cooperation was total.

[One of the most riveting scenes in the film takes place early on, when the inmates are auditioning.  They try to impress as earnestly as any Hollywood hopeful, but at the end, as they look baldly into the camera, their crimes and sentences are tallied in captions.]

GT: Were the auditions real or were they staged for the film?

VT: They are the real auditions and they are one take.  The important part there is the fact that the
camera stays still over them and they do all the action.  The camera is fixed.

GT: I think the thing that I found most surprising was the end of the interview sequence when they clearly became the inmates, not actors.

VT: It was a very conscious decision to start the movie not appealing to, you know, a feeling of empathy with them, but we wanted to show them in a moment of strength to start with [the film opens with a brief scene of the final staging of the play], and then little by little their condition is revealed, to reach that very terrible moment when you actually see in caption what they’ve done and what they’re there for.

It was a very difficult moment, very painful, both for my brother and myself and the inmates.  My wife, who was keeping a production diary, that night said to me while we were in bed, ‘Do you think it was absolutely necessary to reveal their crimes?’  Yes, absolutely yes, because without those captions the whole movie would have been a performance by some inmates, it would not have carried that emotional weight.

My brother and I are not saying our actors are better than other actors such as Marlon Brando portraying the part of Mark Antony in Mankiewicz version—Marlon Brando is sublime—they’re not better, they’re different.  While they’re acting their past becomes present.

GT: This performing Shakespeare in prison, did it exist before you did this film?  Was there a prison theatre program or did you make this up?

VT: No, we proposed the idea to the man playing the director, Fabio Cavalli, who actually has a theatre group in that prison, but my brother and I proposed Julius Caesar, and with hindsight we think it was a very good idea.  We would never have proposed a comedy.

GT: Have your actors seen the movie? Did you screen it?

VT: They’ve seen it, but they’d seen snippets of it even during the shooting, while they were looking at the monitor, and they were transfixed by seeing themselves in black and white which they thought would give them a completely different character.  But when they were shown the actual movie at the end of the production the room was filled with a great deal of joy.  But when they separated after the projection of the movie, it was a repetition of what happened after the end of shooting when they had to go their own separate ways.  So the crew was walking along a long corridor that would lead them to freedom while they had to go back to their cells.  And at the top of the stairs the guy who plays Cassius turned around and called to my brother and I, ‘PaoloVittoria,’ without a space between, like we were one person, ‘from tomorrow onwards, nothing will be the same in here.’  And it was the same when they left after showing them the movie in it’s entirety.  But they follow the journey of the movie so they knew it was going to be shown in London, for the film festival.  They said, ‘We’re going to be with you in spirit because we’ve actually put our soul into our performance so we’re going to be there at each screening, we’ll be much bigger than the audience, with our big faces.  In a way, with our performances, this is our jail break.’

GT: Who influenced you in your filmmaking?

VT: Rossellini with Paisa.  Paolo and I saw the movie one day when we bunked off of school.  We saw people coming out of the first showing going, ‘Don’t go in. Why do you want to go and see this?’   But we were completely stricken.  We’d lived through the war just a few years earlier but it was only when we’d seen it portrayed on screen that we understood, even more, what we had lived through.  If this language, this medium, is capable of revealing to yourself something more about yourself, this is going to be our language.  If we don’t’ succeed we’re going to kill ourselves.’

GT: Thank you.

VT: Viva la cinema!