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Tuesday, Nov 30, 2021

Hirschfield International Film Series: Caesar Must Die

Tired of mainstream and American movies? The annual Hirschfield International Film Series, hosted by the Department of Film and Media Culture, screens independent and foreign films at Dana Auditorium on Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. This year’s selections include the usual measure of Cannes winners – Haneke’s Amour and Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (screened in lieu of Wong Kar Wai’s Grandmaster, unfortunately), which were awarded the Palm D’Or and Best Screenplay respectively in the previous year.

This week’s screening is the Taviani brothers’ Caesar Must Die. After a six-year hiatus, the winners of the 1977 Palm d’Or for Padre padrone reemerge with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which is enacted by prison inmates in an all-male cast.

The brothers’ interpretation of Julius Caesar is unorthodox, treating the play as a mirror of the convicts' past lives rather than as a revered text. And yet despite the refreshing take, the directors failed to breathe a new emotional dimension to the production.

Compiled with scenes of rehearsal that take place in the prison, the line between reality and theatre is constantly treaded. The characters often digress into their conflict-ridden private lives as their lines collided with their traumatic memories, but these moments are predictable and hardly poignant, given their violent pasts. The fatal flaw of the play is the failure to expose the private lives of the convicts, which deprived the play of dramatic tension that could’ve existed in a subplot between the actors. Because of this, the audience is also prevented from emotional resonance. Nonetheless, their readiness and eagerness to take on their roles is intriguing as it betrays a sense of hope contradictory to their futile state of incarceration, as highlighted by the sterile gray scale shooting.

The most meritable aspects of the play are perhaps the artistic choices. Interestingly, the lack of a context – the stark and jarringly vacant prison cells and corridors facilitated by the monochromatic rendition – lends the film a subtext that meanders flexibly between sepulchral and a poetic asceticism. This quality is demonstrated perfectly in the scene where Brutus and Cassius witness Caesar refuse his crown. Shot in a cell that overlooks the playground, the director takes advantage of the din outside as a synecdoche for the commotion stirred by Caesar. Imposed against a high wall, they seem literally diminished by the accidental coalescence between of reality and fiction. The light at the window seems to embody the transience of the encounter.

Despite the interesting dichotomy between acting and its backdrop of reality, the film failed to move me. Perhaps the lack of characterization was an intention for the movie to be seen as a documentary rather than a film, as instead of resonant truths we are informed about the conditions of the prisoners. At least 76 minutes isn’t too much time spent on discovering a trite conclusion.