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Italian jailbirds lock up film roles

'Caesar,' 'Reality' stars face power of their convictions

ROME — Crime may not pay. But it can get you from the jailhouse to the arthouse in Italy.

Both Italian prizewinners at this year’s major fests, the Taviani brothers’ “Caesar Must Die,” which took the Berlin Golden Bear, and Matteo Garrone’s Cannes Grand Prix winner “Reality,” topline talented actors who learned their craft behind bars where, in most cases, they still reside.

Aniello Arena, for example, the protag of “Reality” is a former hitman for the Neapolitan mafia serving a life sentence.

This curious trend attests in part to the therapeutic power of Italy’s progressive penitentiary theater programs, such as the one at Rome’s maximum security Rebibbia jail where rehearsals for Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” form the core of the Tavianis’ semi-docu, which will be released Stateside by Adopt Films.

While the ensemble cast in “Caesar” did its thesping within the jail’s confines, Garrone was able to obtain daily work releases for Arena, who in “Reality” plays a fishmonger obsessed with being on “Big Brother.”

“We tried bringing him to Cannes, but the judge would not budge,” Garrone told journos at the fest.

The helmer says he was first struck by Arena’s talent several years ago after seeing him act in the Volterra jail where, for the past decade, the 44-year-old one-time mobster has been spending most of his time in theater rehearsals.

Arena told the Italian press: “I have been born twice. First theater, and now film, have brought me to a new life.”

Oscilloscope nabbed U.S. rights to “Reality,” in which Arena’s perf has been highly praised.

But not everyone has warmed to the idea of felonious thesps. The Tavianis were asked recently if they thought about the victims of the crimes committed by the convicts they work with. (They said they did.) And Aldo Grasso, TV critic for the Corriere della Sera newspaper, in an editorial titled “The Fishmonger’s Illusion,” recently wondered whether “a convict who becomes famous for a movie is not exactly the same as someone gaining fame through a reality TV show.”

Be that as it may, even after “Reality,” Arena’s future film career seems difficult to plot out, considering he’s serving a sentence of 20 years to life. However, Salvatore Striano, who plays Brutus in the Taviani pic and has been a free man for several years, has been getting fairly steady work in film and TV since leaving the slammer.

In Striano’s instance, his dramatic past may be working a bit too well. Since starring in Garrone’s “Gomorrah,” the actor has played roles in Marco Risi’s “Fortapasc” and Mediaset mob skein “Il Clan Dei Camorristi” — typecast as a mobster.

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