Films We’ve Watched: Caesar Must Die (2012)

7 Feb

One of the chief drawbacks of fame and recognition amongst artists of any stripe is the implicit fact that being a part of the mainstream social consciousness opens up your hard fought creative work to interpretation by people who have no business being anywhere near it. It’s what allowed Miley Cyrus to cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, what has enabled Michael Bay to foul up one (potentially two) great childhood cartoon franchises, and it has produced more than a few painfully formulaic film renditions of the works of the immortal William Shakespeare.

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As the writer of a prolific number of the most recognizable scripts of all time, Shakespeare makes sense as a source for Hollywood film fodder. However, the greatness inherent in these stories is, more often than not, lost in a deluge of mundanity and lazy execution as they are watered down for an audience that Hollywood seems to think very little of.

Caesar Must Die is not one of those films. It takes a story that has been told to the point of exhaustion, and uses it as the framework to say something profound. Finally, one of the most remixed authors of all time gets a non-traditional treatment that goes beyond play ‘x’ taking place in time period ‘y’.

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The film hinges on a framing story of a group of Italian prisoners putting on a production of Julius Caesar, which serves to set the proverbial stage for scenes of the original play to unfold throughout the course of the movie.

What starts as two distinct stories with nothing in common (because what could Italian felons have in common with Roman politicians?) slowly blurs and blends until it sometimes becomes impossible to know when an actor is speaking in their role as a prisoner or a political conspirator. At times, even the prison guards and other inmates take on dual roles and become a crucial part of the scenery for simultaneous storylines.

This film takes it all a step further by casting many of the roles with actors who are, in fact, actual prisoners serving major sentences for very real crimes. The emotional weight brought by caged men discussing a life behind bars is palpable. In doing this, the director has assembled a cast of unwitting method actors who add an additional dimension of depth to an already deeply layered film. Even more meaningful  after reminding you that these men are killers and thieves, it promptly forces you to forget it entirely as you stop seeing the crime they committed, and instead see the art that they create.

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Filmed mostly in black and white inside of a typically drab prison, Caesar is not flashy in any traditional sense of the word. Rather, the film relies on clever transitions and subtle editing to successfully pull the viewer back and forth between the walls and bars of a concrete cage and the dramatic fiction the prisoners are escaping into. Men share conversations with one another through layers of reinforced concrete, and sleepless prisoners agonize together over the weight of their isolation and dreams of the outside world.

Caesar Must Die represents so much of what I love about cinema. It is a powerful story told simply, beautifully, and meaningfully. It is a reminder that even the most inhuman among us desire and deserve humanity, and of a well told story’s ability to cause us to empathize with those we would rather ignore.

“How many centuries hence will this glorious scene of ours be acted over? In kingdoms not yet born, in languages not yet invented. And how many times must Caesar bleed on stage? Like here, today, in this prison of ours, lying on this stone, no worthier than the dust.”

– Blake

And just in case you have yet to see the tragedy.

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