“Mainstays of the Italian cinema scene since their high-school-age encounter with Rossellini’s Paisan inspired their first creative twitchings, sibling filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, now in their 80s, are still plying their trade with admirable tenacity,” begins Damon Smith in Reverse Shot. “Although mid-career gems like Padre Padrone, Kaos, and The Night of the Shooting Stars made the Tavianis dear to connoisseurs of the foreign-language-film sections of Blockbuster Video in the ’80’s and ’90’s, the Tuscan-raised brothers have had a quieter presence on the international festival circuit in the past decade, with only a single feature (The Lark Farm, a drama about the Armenian genocide starring Sex and Lucía’s Paz Vega), along with a couple of low-profile TV movies adapted from novels by Dumas and Tolstoy. Given that history, many critics rejoiced when the Tavianis won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale for Caesar Must Die, a spry 76-minute docu-whatsit about inmates at Rome’s high-security Rebibbia penitentiary rehearsing for a jailhouse-theater production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.”
At this point, it has to be said that of course not all critics were rejoicing on that cold day in February. I, for one, felt that Mike Leigh’s jury had done neither the Berlinale nor the Tavianis’ film any favors. Here’s how the Financial Times‘ Nigel Andrews took the news: “It is amazing, isn’t it? You leave people in a room for two, three, four hours; you provide them with coffee and sandwiches; and they come back with a set of decisions you could have got from monkeys with typewriters. No: on second thoughts, the monkeys would have come up with something better. The prizes for the 62nd Berlin Filmfestspiele are the worst jury awards I can remember in 40 years of attending festivals.”
The problem with this particular Golden Bear this particular year is two-fold. First, the Berlinale’s reputation had been floundering over the past few years. In the fall of 2011, I took part in a symposium hosted by the German Film Critics’ Association during which several ideas were floated as to what to do about it. In the short run at least, none would have been as effective as the Berlinale heralding a film truly worthy of not only its own but almost any other festival’s top prize and then sending it out into the world tagged “Golden Bear-winner.” And what’s doubly frustrating about Leigh’s jury’s failure to do that is that, out of a Competition lineup of 20 titles, a good handful—the FT‘s Andrews names about half a dozen films he’d have been happier to see honored—would have fit the bill. I’m pleased to see the New York Film Festival showcasing my own two choices, Christian Petzold‘s Barbara and Miguel Gomes’s Tabu. Petzold is this close to achieving the level of international recognition he deserves, and that gold might have given him that one last gentle push over the line. Or, had the jury gone for Tabu, it would have made for a glorious triumph for cinephilia, which, as you’ll have heard, is taking punches from all corners these days.
In short, the 2012 edition of the Berlinale was a good one. But anyone for whom the Berlinale only pops up on the radar when the awards are announced would never know. The flip side of the problem with this particular Golden Bear has to do with how it’s damaged the winner, at least in the immediate wake of its win. Champions of any other worthier contender turned against it with merciless fury (again, see Andrews, or Guy Lodge at In Contention, or the AFP story, “Critics lament conservative win at Berlin film fest”), and the thing is, while Caesar Must Die is by no means a great film, it’s not a bad one, either. To return to Damon Smith, for example, he finds it to be “a lean, intelligent film about art’s spiritually regenerative properties, boldly realized and enacted in its best moments, and exquisitely photographed on the grounds of the prison in stylized, (mostly) black-and-white compositions that evoke early Pasolini.”
Back in February, Stephanie Zacharek reminded us at Movieline that what we’re dealing with here is a production of Julius Caesar staged in a maximum security prison: “Footage from the actual performance frames the picture: In the opening scene, we see a bunch of stubbly, rough-looking guys, wearing simple, stylized costumes that give the whole affair the aura of a children’s holiday pageant, doing some pretty interesting things with Shakespeare’s language. Not all of those things are, in the strict sense, good. But even the ‘bad’ actors among this bunch—and remember, they’re not just nonprofessionals but convicted criminals, for Christ’s sake—contribute to the intense, quiet power of the final work.”
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “If this were a scripted drama instead of an inventively staged documentary, it would be a lesser work. but it takes the form of a separate fiction, casting the men in a reenactment of the rehearsal process: They enact the play within claustrophobic hallways and jail cells, turning the prison into an interactive stage. Narratively, this functions like a cold exercise in meta storytelling, but the Tavianis validate their project with its basis in reality.”
For Chris Cabin, writing at Slant, “the Tavianis find an arguably small, quite elegant, and preposterously effective way to blend the narrative and documentary elements at furious play in Caesar Must Die. In one way, it casts the film as an ideal fantasia of nobility in prison’s power struggles, that in its very existence suggests the degrading, painful, and horrifying reality of such brutal feuds and conspiracies; in this, it shares kinship with Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, though bereft of that film’s sublime style and filmic innuendos. More so, it makes a persuasive, moving argument for the use of art in criminal rehabilitation without ignoring the real prison, both literally and emotionally, these men live in. To paraphrase one prisoner, knowledge of art makes confinement all the more real and final. And yet, the film remains largely humorous and the Tavianis sense of composition and visual rhythm focuses on elemental pleasures, not the least of which being the precise and evocative work of first-time DP Simone Zampagni.”
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