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Urgent Demands

The Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, have been making films since 1962; their work, almost always in Italy, has almost always been innovative, intense, and involved with social and political subjects. Sometimes they have not always been able to control the strength they summoned, but their films have mattered. When I learned that they were making a film of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I was doubly alerted. I knew they would treat it in some heterodox way, and of all the Shakespeare canon, this play, ever since the Orson Welles production in 1937, has seemed the one most malleable to modern concerns. Further, I was eager to hear Shakespeare in Italian again. The best Shakespeare production I have ever seen was in Italian—Giorgio Strehler’s La Tempesta—and the memory of that music still lingers. Now, called Caesar Must Die, the Taviani film has arrived. If it disappoints those two hopes, it is nonetheless differently admirable.

The Tavianis have joined forces with a man named Fabio Cavalli, a theater director who has done much work in prisons, producing plays with inmates. He was about to do Caesar in a Roman prison—in the high-security wing—and it was arranged for the Tavianis to film the whole process. It is quickly clear that Shakespeare was not the point; the play was cut and arranged as fit the actors’ impulses, and they were asked, for their own freedom, not to attempt standard Italian but to speak in their native dialects—Neapolitan, Sicilian, and so forth. In short, this production was being done for the cast, though it was hoped that an audience would respond.

The first shot of the film is of a sword, in Brutus’s hand, as he implores friends to hold it so that he can run on it. This glimpse of the play’s close is followed by the very beginning of things, Cavalli’s first meeting with those who want to be in the show. He bids each of them to audition by stating his name, birthplace, and address (!) in two different ways, obedient and resentful. Most of them then get a minute alone on camera in which human beings and Italy in itself are spilled before us. After Cavalli has assigned roles, he tells his cast that, because the prison’s theater is being repaired, they must rehearse where they can.

Richard Lormand/Kaos Cinematografica
Salvatore Striano as Bruto

Here presumably is where the Taviani touch strongly enters. They have shot almost all the scenes that followed in prison rooms, bare and enclosing, that contradict the theme of the play, a struggle for liberty and freedom. What is next most apparent, to all three directors’ credit, is the acting. Most of the actors do not look like their characters. Brutus, for instance, striking as he is, is not a majestic nobleman. Each performer, speaking in his own dialect, seems to be playing his role as he considers how his man might have been in the world he knows. Flashes of the author’s text occur in the subtitles, but the rendering of the play is a contemporary view of their world, far from a version of Shakespeare. The outcries about freedom are moving, of course, but we have been told by these men themselves why they are in prison—everything from drug smuggling to multiple murders. (Brutus is played by a former inmate who has returned for the role. He is now, with good reason, trying to be a professional actor.)

With all these criminals jostling about in various emotional states, we watch for trouble, but there is only one fight, between two old enemies. We must wonder of course at the psychological complexities in these men who get out of their cells every day to become ancient Roman nobles risking their lives for freedom. We get a hint from one of them who at the close of the film says that this experience has turned his cell into prison.

The play is performed in the prison’s theater, which is large and comfortable.  Only the scenes literally on stage are shot in color. (Paolo Taviani has said that color is realistic; black-and-white is fantastic.) At the end, the dead Brutus is brought to his feet, and the audience cheers the cast. The actors cheer the audience. It is almost an impertinence to think that we understand the thoughts of these actors and those in the audience who are relatives and friends. But this is the intriguing privilege that the Taviani brothers have given us.

The Pirogue is the title of a memorable film from Senegal. (“Pirogue” is their name for a large open boat, capacity thirty, no covering, driven by an outboard engine.) Besides its intrinsic qualities, the film is a reminder of two general matters. First, countries not noted for film occasionally come up with skillfully made films—well directed and shot and edited and acted, implying a film culture there of which we know little. Second, directors these days seem to be using audience consciousness of film forms as part of their work. Recently a German film called Barbara used our knowledge of the thriller and the romance as part of its method. Here the director uses our experience of documentaries, particularly from Africa, as part of our engagement—and gradually to increase our admiration. Who could have thought these men were acting? Yet how could a documentary camera happen to be there at so many right moments?

In this, his third feature, the director Moussa Touré turns to a punishing practice that has been going on for years. Conditions are tough in their country and in those nearby, so men have been trying to emigrate to the Old World, Spain particularly. They can’t afford regular passage, so they pay less for the trip northward by sea in a pirogue. Every year many of these boats are lost and passengers with them. Senegalese boat owners continue to sell passage profitably, and desperate men pay for it, danger and all.

Les Chauves-Souris/ArtMattan Productions
Souleymane Seye Ndiaye as Baye Laye

Touré wants us first to know something about these people. We begin at some sort of celebration in a town. Before a pleased and gesticulating crowd, powerful men are dancing, wrestling, singing. Through the men’s bodies and pride, we see that we are joining a ceremony of tradition. We then meet Baye Laye, a young fisherman who has been asked to pilot a pirogue to Spain. He has declined. We accompany him to his home. He has a wife and son who need support. In time he accepts.

The trip is both harrowing and familiar. The wagon train in Utah and the patrol in the Sahara are stories we know, and this one is not vastly different. The difference is in Touré s concern to tell us more about his people. Quarrels, even fights occur and are quelled usually by emphasis on their general condition. A stowaway is discovered, a young woman, and the quality of these men is further drawn by the approach of only one man with a very gentle sexual offer. Small Senegalese characteristics are pointed out. A speaks to B, and when A leaves, B looks at C, his look connoting a patch of dialogue.

Horrors occur. They pass another pirogue, stalled for days, whose people plead for help. Baye sails on, his fuel and capacity already strained. A few of the men from the other boat dive overboard and swim to Baye’s boat, where they are indeed cared for. Some of his passengers sicken and die. One attempts suicide. At last a fierce rainstorm kills both of their outboards. They have to make for shore: never visible, wherever it may be. Just then a helicopter from the Spanish Red Cross spots them, and the survivors are saved. The finish is brief and bitter.

The camera work by Thomas Letellier is both intimately fine and breathtaking. The cast, headed by Souleymane Seye Ndiaye as Baye, seems intent on telling the truth. The pirogue practice may still be going on, but at least Touré has done his job and has made a strong film in doing it.