To understand why "Caesar Must Die" is more intense than you might expect, why it ranks among the most involving adaptations of Shakespeare ever put on screen, you have to know exactly what it is and how it came into being.
It started when the veteran Italian directors (and brothers) Paolo and Vittorio Taviani were persuaded to attend a live reading of cantos from Dante's "The Divine Comedy" presented by inmates serving life sentences inside the high-security section of Rome's Rebibbia prison.
The Tavianis, whose best-known films include "The Night of the Shooting Stars" and "Padre Padrone," were mightily impressed by what they saw, and approached Fabio Cavalli, the director of the prison group, about doing a production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" that would be staged with the collaboration of the inmates and filmed throughout the prison.
"We chose 'Julius Caesar,'" the Tavianis said in an extensive interview in Cineaste magazine, "because it is about tyranny, the homicide of a tyrant, about betrayal, friendship, treachery and conspiracy, and it is set in Rome, in Italy. These emotions correspond with the world from which the prisoners come."
The film that resulted, though only 76 minutes long, is a stunning confirmation of the Tavianis' instincts. "Caesar Must Die" shows us in the starkest possible terms the electric power of drama to move and touch not only audiences but the actors who bring so much of themselves to their performances.
What we experience is not just the inevitable jolt of watching men who truly understand violence and conspiracy as they conspire to murder a man and then do the deed. It's that to see "Caesar Must Die" is to feel in the largest possible sense that these inmate actors comprehend this play in their bones - the characters' desperation becomes their desperation as well.
As the rehearsal period increases in intensity, it's mesmerizing to see the ways the actors make Shakespeare's situations their own, initially by speaking the lines not in standard Italian but their own particular regional dialects.
The actors also start to see parallels between the play's situations and their own lives, and even end up almost coming to blows because some of the circumstances remind them of bad blood in their own lives. "To think," the imposing inmate who plays Caesar says to no one in particular, "at school I found this so boring."
Though it would be comforting to concentrate on the notion that being able to act has enlarged these men's lives, the Tavianis, now in their 80s, won't allow us that easy consolation. Perhaps the most memorable line in "Caesar Must Die" comes when the prisoner who plays Cassius looks at the camera and simply says, "Since I got to know art, the cell has become a prison."
"Ceasar Must Die"
• Not Rated.
• Directors: Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani
• Cast: Giovanni Arcuri, Juan Dario Bonetti.
• Running time: 76 minutes.