Filmmakers have taken the idea of prison theatricals and fashioned it into an attractive yet only superficially thought-provoking semi-docu.

Venerable helmers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have taken the well-worn idea of prison theatricals and fashioned it into an attractive yet only superficially thought-provoking semi-docu with “Caesar Must Die.” “Semi” because every line appears carefully rehearsed, including personal asides, though the prisoners and their incarceration are very real. Staging Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” with criminals adds a significant amount of extra-textual food for thought, but it’s uncertain whether the Taviani brothers are clear on what it all should mean. Result is an intriguing, at times impressive, curiosity that could be sprung from fest lock-up for short-term parole on limited arthouse screens.

The high-security section of Rome’s Rebibbia prison — temporary (or not) home to Mafia figures, murderers, drug traffickers, etc. — has been staging plays in its own theater for years. The Tavianis collaborate with Fabio Cavalli, the director in charge of these perfs, to produce “Julius Caesar” within the prison walls while incorporating some of the convicts’ thoughts, trimming the play and expounding on concepts while inviting the men to adapt the Italian translation into their own dialects.

Opening and closing, in color, show snippets of the actual stage production with the audience, while the bulk of the pic, shot in striking black-and-white, moves throughout the jail and includes scenes, rehearsals and the prisoners’ reactions. Though the Tavianis want to emphasize the pathos of incarceration, their decision to use various prison locales lessens the sense of a restrictive space; in a final scene with Brutus (Salvatore Striano) and Cassius (Cosimo Rega), the thesps are shot against a white sky accompanied by sounds of nature. A subsequent shot of the men returning to their cells is meant to bring auds back to reality, yet the earlier image of them surrounded by a limitless firmament turns the cells into a theatrical construct.

So does the knowledge that Striano was released in 2006, returning to Rebibbia for this production (he made his acting debut in 2008’s “Gomorrah”). Though he’s a powerful actor, his insertion among the convicts serving their sentences shakes up the helmers’ presumed objective, to force auds to contemplate questions of inner and outer freedom, and the ineluctable humanity that remains whether restrained by real or metaphorical walls.

In this the pic is only partially successful. Notwithstanding the sobering contemplation of imprisoned lives, viewers can’t ignore the fact that these guys aren’t exactly Jean Valjeans, and they’re in high security for a reason. It’s a salutary notion that prison theatricals offer a safe haven for the soul even in stir, and its role in rehabilitation feels very real. But what is the viewer meant to take away after watching convicted criminals staging a play about a traitorous murder? Given the popularization of the Mafia stereotype, there’s an odd sensation springing from lines in the play dealing with “honor,” generating unintended reactions leaning more toward comedy than drama.

There are moments, when the men react to concepts in the play or their lives, that feel far too scripted; the guys probably said the lines at one time, but their repetition for the camera is jarring in its lack of spontaneity. Unquestionably the film works best when sticking to the play. For the most part, the changes made to the Shakespeare (via Italian translation) maintain the Bard’s conception of character, though the use of dialects can be startling for sharp-eared auds. When Decius (Juan Dario Bonetti) says, “Fresh, fresh, this morning” he sounds more like an itinerant egg seller than a Roman general. Some speeches appear to have gone through distracting post-production dubbing.

While practically all the men do justice to their roles, the real standout is Giovanni Arcuri’s Caesar. His powerful physique, expressive demeanor, palpable presence and ease with his lines should have helmers calculating how much time he’s got left inside before they can cast him in future roles.

Lensing by Simone Zampagni, the Tavianis’ assistant cameraman on their recent pics, showcases starkly handsome black-and-white, straightforward and memorable, although some may find the visuals wear their “arty” credentials a bit too self-consciously. While music is generally kept to a minimum, there’s an unfortunate repetition of a mournful alto-sax theme, and having tunes well up for the line “Rome, city without shame” unnecessarily pushes a point.

Caesar Must Die

Production

credits: A Sacher Distribution release of a Kaos Cinematografica production, in association with Stemal Entertainment, Le Talee, La Ribalta -- Centro Studi Enrico Maria Salerno, in collaboration with Rai Cinema. (International sales: Rai Trade, Rome.) Produced by Grazia Volpi. Executive producer, Donatella Palermo. Directed by Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani. Written by Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani, in collaboration with Fabio Cavalli.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Simone Zampagni; editor, Roberto Perpignani; music, Giuliano Taviani, Carmelo Travia; sound (Dolby Digital), Benito Alchimede, Brando Mosca; assistant director, Mimmola Girosi. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 11, 2012. Running time: 76 MIN.

With

Fabio Cavalli, Salvatore Striano, Cosimo Rega, Giovanni Arcuri, Antonio Frasca, Juan Dario Bonetti, Vittorio Parrella, Rosario Majorana, Vincenzo Gallo, Francesco De Masi, Gennaro Solito, Francesco Carusone, Fabio Rizzuto, Maurilio Giaffreda.

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