Dir. Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy, 2012, 76 mins, In Italian with English subtitles
Cast: Fabio Cavalli, Cosimo Rega, Salvatore Striano, Giovanni Arcuri, Antonio Frasca, Juan Dario Bonetti, Vincenzo Gallo
Review by Adam Hollingworth
Towards the conclusion of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part 2, Michael Corleone is faced with a conundrum: how to avenge himself on turncoat mobster Frankie Pentangelli when he is cloistered within an FBI compound. The solution: he sends consigliore Tom Hagen to converse with Pentangeli. As they speak, both men liken the composition of the mafia to the Roman Empire, and muse upon the fact that conspirators in a failed plot to overthrow the state were granted the opportunity to end their lives with honour rather than face public shame. The next time we see him, Pentangeli has slashed his wrists in his bathtub: message received and understood.
The humanistic reverberations of this relationship between the contemporary Italian mafia and the ancient Roman Empire are interrogated to an even more provocative degree in this documentary cum performance piece from veteran Italian filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani: a mesmerizing and moving rumination upon the affirmative power of art and the intersection of fact and fiction in an arena where truth, past and present are inescapable and inextricable.
The film opens in an intimate theatrical space, wherein a group of players are enacting, in visceral and passionate fashion, the concluding scenes of Shakespeare’s Roman Tragedy Julius Caesar. As the lights go up the troupe takes its bow to rapturous applause, but when the auditorium empties the players are escorted back to their prison cells. The performance has taken place in the Rebibbia high security prison, and the actors are all inmates serving long sentences for mafia-related crimes, from drug trafficking to murder. The documentary then flashes back six months to the announcement by the prison’s resident director, Italian theatre practitioner Fabio Cavalli, of the company’s next play, and its subsequent casting and rehearsals. As the prisoner-actors explore the text, they marvel at how closely Shakespeare’s ruminations on state upheaval and a society fuelled by vendettas and bloodshed echoes the contemporary world of their youth outside the prison walls, and the conspiracies and rivalries between the play’s characters become manifest in the sometimes wary and mistrustful relationships between the prison’s inmates. All these factors combine as the cast rehearse various scenes from the play around the prison compound, reimagining Shakespeare’s play as a community piece and likening the power-driven, divided Roman state to the reality of life within the prison’s walls.
Though it is no fault of the filmmakers, the English subtitling of the film proved a source of persistent frustration to this reviewer, and will do to anyone else very familiar with the actual text of Shakespeare’s play. The prisoners are naturally performing the play in an Italian translation, but the English subtitles express this translation in nonsensical colloquial language which nonetheless follows the sense of Shakespeare’s text.
This is, however, the only real problem in a remarkable piece of work which, similarly to Bart Layton’s profoundly haunting The Imposter, muddies the waters between fact and fiction; yet in this case the result is not disquieting mystification but rather the revelation of universal human truths. The most electrifying scenes in the documentary are the impromptu breaks in the actors’ performances during rehearsals when fiction has strayed too close to fact and an undercurrent of clandestine violence between the mafia-connected inmates bubbles to the surface. The actors perform the play with such clarity in relation to their actual experiences and emotions as hardened members of a powerful criminal faction that the documentary constantly hints at a Stanislavskian study of the nature of acting and performance. To the inmates, Julius Caesar is not about the influential linguistics of political rhetoric, but rather a fiery and brutal study of the weight and necessity of murder in the acquisition of power, and the irony of these resonances is all too clear to the prisoners forced to face the dark decisions of their past on a daily basis.
The Tavianis bring years of filmmaking experience to a work which is subtle and unfussy yet highly effective in its construction. The film is mostly in black and white but switches to colour for the final theatrical performance and a poster of a beautiful beach panorama, contrasting the grim, mundane routine of prison life with the soaring freedom that comes with artistic expression. As the prisoners’ rehearsals progress the filmmakers gradually phase out the actors’ lapses into reminiscence, and even the presence of the on-screen director Cavalli, to further merge documentary and fiction by allowing scenes from the play to unfold as if being performed as community theatre. At times the blend between fiction and reality threatens to compromise the integrity of the documentary: Cosimo Rega’s final line feels too neat a coda to not have been pre-planned. However it is a line, like the film in general, of such poignant insight into the true spiritual cost of incarceration and regret that this mistrust ceases to matter, and the truth becomes both relative and tangible.