Brutus Among the Brutish

The inmates at the Rebibbia penitentiary enact a climactic scene from “Julius Caesar.” | ADOPT FILMS

The inmates at the Rebibbia penitentiary enact a climactic scene from “Julius Caesar.” | ADOPT FILMS

The Taviani brothers are two of the last living links to the glory days of Italian neo-realism. Back in 1954, they worked as screenwriters on a film with Cesare Zavattini, the grand theorist of that movement. They wouldn’t be able to direct films themselves until the ‘60s, and their work didn’t come to international attention until their 1977 “Padre Padrone” won the top prize at Cannes. They’re still best known for that and “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” made in 1982. Since then, their films gradually slid out of American distribution.

Last year, though, “Caesar Must Die,” a semi-documentary look at a prison production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” took the top prize at last year’s Berlin Film Festival. While the directors are now in their 80s, their work suddenly seems relevant again — “Caesar Must Die” combines documentary, theater, and fiction in ways that could hardly be more au courant.

Taviani brothers, old but very modern, return to US screen with probe of art’s redemptive value

The Tavianis spent six months shooting rehearsals for “Julius Caesar” in Rome’s Rebibbia penitentiary. The stage production was directed by Fabio Cavalli, who encouraged the prisoners to use their local dialects and accents. The Tavianis seemingly had free reign to shoot all over the prison. “Caesar Must Die” opens with the suicide of Brutus, filmed during a public performance of “Julius Caesar,” but it then goes back to the auditions of prisoners at the production’s outset.

There’s nothing slapdash about “Caesar Must Die.” Its lighting and cinematography — and use of color, in a few scenes — are carefully worked out. Much of it seems to be shot with the prison’s natural light, but when stylized lighting is utilized, it creates a chiaroscuro effect. Elsewhere, the images are full of inky black tones and gray backgrounds.

The scenes of the play being performed in front of an audience are shot in color. I can only speculate about the directors’ motives for this switch, but I’d guess it had something to do with a desire to capture what this public performance of the play meant to the prisoners.

“Caesar Must Die” brings to mind another film that played last fall’s New York Film Festival, Alain Resnais’ “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” Both films, derived from plays, use real people — in Resnais’ case, a cast of famous French actors playing themselves — in scenarios that grow increasingly fictionalized. Resnais obviously had a much bigger budget than the Taviani brothers — there’s no CGI or green-screen to enhance the “sets” of “Caesar Must Die.” The Tavianis worked with the spaces they found.

“Caesar Must Die” shows its cast slipping back and forth between their lives and their roles in Shakespeare’s play. Learning their lines (imperfectly, one must admit) becomes part of their daily routine. When the actors forgot a line, the directors didn’t cut. These slip-ups become an integral part of the film, if not the play. The language has been modernized, and then altered by being translated from Italian into English via subtitles — I don’t think Shakespeare wrote about “taking the piss” out of someone. The actors also muse on the similarities between their lives as criminals and the power plays and violence described by Shakespeare centuries earlier.

At 76 minutes — with a lengthy end credits sequence — “Caesar Must Die” barely qualifies as a feature, yet there are a few places where it seems to have been deliberately elongated. It repeats footage of the end of the “Julius Caesar” performance, and there’s a lengthy scene of prospective actors auditioning that doesn’t add much to the film. Were it 65 minutes, it might have been a stronger film, but it also might have been impossible to distribute for commercial release in cinemas.

No critic seems capable of reviewing “Caesar Must Die” without mentioning its final line, in which one prisoner returns to his cell after the performance and says, “Since I got to know art, this cell has become a prison.” It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the Tavianis are critiquing the idea of redemption or transcendence via art for these prisoners, some of whom are murderers.

Yet that’s not the true finale of “Caesar Must Die.” The film goes on to scroll through photos of the actors in “Julius Caesar.” One has been paroled and is now acting in theater and film. Two others have written books. For some, at least, art offered them something other than a momentary distraction.

CAESAR MUST DIE | Directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani | Adopt Films | In Italian with English subtitles | Opens Feb. 6 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | | Lincoln Plaza Cinemas | 1886 Broadway at 63rd St. |