Aside from the footage of the performance, all we can be sure of here is that the prison is really a prison and the prisoners are really prisoners (with the exception of Salvatore Striano as Brutus, who was paroled from the facility in 2006 and, having begun a career as a professional thereafter, returned to the prison for this production). We are told their names and in some cases what crimes they have been convicted of, crimes including murder, drug trafficking, and unspecified Mafia- or Camorra-related offenses. We are not told if the auditions and rehearsals are reenactments, or if the dialogue is truly spontaneous. The scenes are staged against the backdrops of cell and corridor and chain-linked recreation area that the prison provides; groups of prisoners stand in as the Roman mob responding to the orations of Brutus and Antony. The black-and-white cinematography is classic in style, evoking not raw documentary but the stark elegance of an Italian studio production of the 1950s or 1960s; that is to say, the main body of the film is presented in a manner almost indistinguishable from fiction, as if it were possible that these prisoners might be actors playing prisoners playing actors.
If it is a film about prisoners it is just as much a film about acting. A number of the prisoners turn out to be remarkably persuasive actors, but this raises the question of whether their persuasiveness is purely a matter of talent or if it is not given a particular edge by the experiences they bring to bear. Striano withdraws from the rehearsal at one point because personal associations evoked by the scene have overwhelmed him. Juan Dario Bonetti as Decius Brutus, in the scene where he goes to overcome Caesar’s objections and lure him to the Senate, is masterful in his portrayal of smiling deceitfulness, up to the moment when Giovanni Arcuri as Caesar (whom I found the most impressive of the cast) interrupts the scene to rebuke Bonetti for his actual deceitfulness, as if the dramatic situation had provoked a reminder of other resentments. The stabbing of Caesar is executed with unnerving assurance.
Our perception of these performances is unavoidably colored by what we imagine the prisoners are bringing to their roles, although we are told nothing about the details of their lives; as if the intensity that informs the scenes of loyalty, betrayal, conspiracy, guarded negotiation, and stoic acceptance of death were an oblique description of their lives in prison and, earlier, outside the walls. It stands to reason that the criminal life, the maneuverings within a criminal organization, the practicing of deceptions and confidence games, the seduction of victims, the giving of false testimony, might all add up to a thorough training in the art of acting. There are performances whose success is measured not in applause but in life or death, freedom or incarceration.
The film raises constantly the question of whether we are watching an upsurge of emotional communication or a practiced art. Does the play give these men a chance to show what is in them, or does it provide them with another set of masks? We want to believe that the best actors are those who reveal themselves most truly, but the contrary might well be true. These are after all “actions that a man might play,” actions that these men may already have played, and perhaps we should be wariest of the one who seems to reveal an essential openness of spirit. We look at them long and hard because we can; if we passed them on the street we might be afraid to. But these prisoners are not simply offered up for our inspection—they are performing at every instant, with a desperate energy and emotional expressiveness for which the play is the only outlet. The play is a prison of another sort: an enclosure containing a freedom utterly circumscribed. This is a freedom of a different kind from that enjoyed by the spectator who can sit and pass judgment on the performances, and who also enjoys the privilege of treating “prisoner” and “cell” as metaphors in an artistic scheme.
Julius Caesar—which was selected by the Tavianis for the theater program—is no mere pretext. Most of what we see is the play, translated into a variety of Italian dialects (each actor speaks in the dialect of his own region), and abridged almost to comic-book proportions. Long speeches are compressed to terse summaries of their purport. Yet it is Julius Caesar even if reduced to its highpoints, and it comes through with a force of actual feeling and actual potential for violence that I have not seen in other stage productions or film adaptations, but that carries with it some suggestion of the violent world from which the play itself emanated—or for that matter the violent world that is its subject. We cannot forget that we are after all in Rome, and that the authorities overseeing the prison are in some remote sense the heirs of the Caesars.
The language being Italian, many lines take on a different resonance. When Antony calls for “vendetta” and speaks of Brutus and Cassius as “uomini di onore,” the distance is not far from the world of the play to that in which it is being performed. It is a keen reminder of how familiarity and cultural esteem dull the edges of Shakespeare’s plays, domesticate them and remove the sense of danger. If here we see Shakespeare played by killers and illicit traffickers we may be sure it is not for the first time. We draw lines around Shakespeare and call what is inside civilization, but the gesture says little about the actual history within which the plays arose, and the scenes of blood and terror through which they have made their way across the centuries. Civilization, in this film, is represented precisely by the seemingly well-ordered prison in which the performance takes place. The players—the prisoners—enact their performance only by permission and within strict limits. The determination—at times it seems close to anguish—with which they seize that opportunity reenacts what must have been the astonishing force and challenge launched by the actors who first played Julius Caesar.