Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On Tragedy, Beauty, and the Cell: An Interview with the Taviani Brothers





Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have been making visionary films for more than four decades, but sometimes it feels like they've been gone from American screens for so long that very few people here remember them. Hopefully that injustice will be partly undone by the release on these shores of their latest, the compact and beautiful Caesar Must Die, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin last year. (Go here to read David Edelstein’s rave.)

The film portrays a group of inmates in Italy’s Rebibbio Prison putting on a performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The film's actual cast consists of the same inmates, playing themselves playing the parts, and the film was shot in the prison. As in so many of their other works, the Tavianis blur the lines between the modern and the mythic, between emotional immediacy and the impulse to deconstruct, to analyze. They highlight the physicality of the actors -- the film is full of the earthiness and immediacy so characteristic of their work -- even as they depict the transcendental quality of these forgotten individuals' encounter with great art. (In some weird way, in its blending of the intimate with a distant poeticism, the film reminds me of Visconti's La Terra Trema.) Meanwhile, the production of this most canonical of plays -- Shakespeare's most incantatory work, here revised to fit the actors' varied dialects -- spills out from the stage of the prison into its cells and common spaces. So much so that it becomes almost a cubist meditation on the enclosure of the self. As the inmates broaden their personal and psychological horizons, the Tavianis’ aesthetic entraps them further.

So, the film is magnificent, though perhaps it doesn't have the more accessible, epic grandeur of some of the Tavianis' better-known works. Indeed, at some point in the 1970s and 80s, these filmmakers were an international phenomenon, and deservedly so. I can think of few films greater than Night of the Shooting Stars, with Allonsanfan, Kaos, and Padre Padrone (which won a controversial Palme d'Or at Cannes back in the day) following close behind. I'd also highly, highly recommend the English language Good Morning Babylon, an exquisite, sweeping, and decidedly weird drama of two Italian brothers who come to the U.S. and wind up working on the set of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. It was made at the height of their popularity, and flopped mightily -- suffering, perhaps, from the fact that the Tavianis were directing American and English actors, with an English-language screenplay, even though they themselves speak very little English. Nevertheless, as a teenager, I think I saw it something like twenty times. Get over the crazy dialogue, and it's amazing. (I bet it plays great in Italian, with subtitles.)

During the last New York Film Festival, I got to realize a lifelong dream of speaking to the Tavianis about the new film, and their work in general. Here's what came of it.




Did you ever consider making Caesar Must Die as a straight documentary?

Absolutely not. At the beginning of our career, we did make some small documentaries. But we don’t love those films that we made all that much. In Italy, they couldn’t really be longer than 10 minutes, so they really became concentrated films. Without a doubt, the one great experience we had was when we collaborated with Joris Ivens in a film called Italy is Not a Poor Country. It was then that we understood the creativity of documentary filmmaking…and that we were not meant for it. This was a long documentary film, in three parts. We shot the third part, which took place in Sicily. Joris was already editing the other sections in Rome. When we sent him our material, he replied, “It’s splendid. But it’s not documentary, it’s fiction.”

When we approached Caesar Must Die, we thought of it like we thought of our other works. It was an audiovisual organism in which all these elements combine: storytelling, the discovery of truth, the participation of these very unique characters, who in this case happen to be the inmates of a prison… As well as a collaboration with our big brother, William Shakespeare, with a play that’s both Italian and Roman. We didn’t ask ourselves if it was documentary or fiction.


Was it your decision to make the play performed Julius Caesar?

Yes. We first had the idea when we attended some performances in the jail, among which was a performance of Dante in Neapolitan dialect, which was very moving. We said, “We have to find a way to recount this emotion.” We immediately had the idea to do Julius Caesar, because it’s set in Rome, it’s set in Italy, and because it speaks of assassination, of friendship and betrayal.


It’s telling that you chose Caesar, because in many ways it’s the ultimate Taviani Brothers story. It’s anti-authoritarian, but it also depicts the infighting between revolutionaries, and it’s all about the Death of the Father. These are all recurring motifs in your films. 

[Laughter] This is true. But it was also relevant to our subjects. Our inmate actors told us, “Caesar, for us, is a friend. And Shakespeare is a friend for us, because 500 years ago, he already told our tragedy.” Remember, these people are in maximum security, convicted of Mafia crimes. And many of the themes in Caesar correspond precisely with the Camorra or the Mafia.


So, how did you go about actually getting the permission to do the film the way that you did, to actually shoot inside the prison?

We spoke with the director Fabio Cavalli, who’s a theater director who’s spent his life doing productions in prisons. We told him we wanted to do Caesar, and he said, let’s get started. We started very quickly. The warden of the prison, who was extraordinary, gave us total freedom to shoot within the prison. Because we didn’t want to tell this story on the theater stage -- except for maybe a small part of the finale. Instead, what we had in mind was to have the actors and inmates act out the parts in their own environment: In their cells, in the prison, in the yard, in the outdoor cubicles where they can get air. As we were shooting we said to ourselves, “We are making an absurdist film.” Because the convergence of all these elements was absolutely new to us.


How did you direct the actors? In one sense they’re doing a play, which requires a very theatrical form of acting, but this is a film, so they can’t just constantly be projecting. And on top of that, they’re non-professionals.

Many of them have been acting for ten years, in the theater program at Rebibbio Prison. Remember, these people are sentenced to many many years, some of them serving life sentences. That said, when we got there, we said to Fabio Cavalli and to the inmates, “You’re very good theater actors, but cinema is something different. This film begins with an extreme close-up.” They were expecting to begin the play with a big elaborate scene, on the stage. They were marveling at the fact that when we began, the first thing we did was put one actor on the stage and say, “Okay, let’s take an extreme close up of Brutus.”


They clearly adapted well, because their performances are spectacular.

One important thing to note is that we told the actors, “Whoever has a part in the film has to take their  role and translate it into their own regional dialect. Sicilian, Neapolitan, Calabrian, etc.” This way of getting closer to the text really engaged them. And as they prepared, their friends at the prison who came from the same region would check their work and make sure they translated correctly.


Did that work that they did change your conception of the film as it progressed?

During the first encounters with them, we wanted them to tell us about their lives -- both their relationships with the play but also their relationships with each other. And some of their personal stories struck us so much that we decided to make them part of the film. So, together with the inmates, we scripted them, and this was also really helpful in terms of removing the concept that it was just a theater production. It allowed them to enter the experience from a deeply personal level.

There’s really a contradiction in this whole thing. On the one hand, we have these people who are preparing for at theatrical production. Their real experience – the most profound aspect of what they were doing – was really captured by the movie camera. The film is really an encounter between two tragedies: The tragedy of Brutus and Caesar and Mark Anthony, and the tragedy of those who are playing their parts. Their past is tragic, but so is their present life. As they were working with the Shakespearean text, they found a lot of truth that belonged to them.


You speak of how they brought their own reality to the text, but you also talk about how it’s an absurdist film. I find that this is also something that we find in a lot of your stories. You’ve adapted some very “classical” stories, from Tolstoy, Goethe, now Shakespeare, and so on. But you often give it a Brechtian spin. Is this a conscious approach, or something intuitive?

We’re made this way at this point. We don’t calculate it. You’re right though when you define the classics this way. As we approached this film, and this reality, we wanted to use instruments that were not realistic. In the past, in cinema, black and white used to be representative of reality. It’s not anymore. So, we used black and white as a way to commit a kind of violence to reality, along with the environments that we chose. Every once in a while we would show the actors their images in black and white. They were very much involved with this choice; they felt like they could express themselves better.

In the end, when the color finally appears on the stage, it’s a very dense, very strong color. It’s almost a prize to the inmates, because they succeeded in putting it on. They get applause, and they thank the public, and they hug each other, and they explode with joy – a very colorful joy. We feel like they’ve lived a few minutes of freedom. For a few minutes, they feel briefly human.


That’s one thing that I feel distinguishes Caesar Must Die from so many of your other films. Usually, your characters follow a Utopian ideal and are undone by reality. Here, your characters manage, albeit briefly, to transcend their reality. 

That’s a good point, but there’s one tiny thing to add. In their conquest of art, they discover a wide open horizon that’s so different from the closed, dark world view they once held. They discover a horizon full of joy, of color, of sense, and of beauty -- a new vision of reality. But in the same moment that they discover it, they also discover that they themselves have closed themselves off from enjoying this new horizon. That’s the last line of the film, “From the time I discovered art, this cell has become a prison.” We didn’t write that phrase. They said it themselves. It’s actually one of the reasons that we made the film, that line. Because it brought back the great contradiction of life.

Marcello Mastroianni in Allonsanfan

Do you believe in the healing power of art?

Let’s talk specifically about the theater and the show in prison, because the discussion of art is a more complex one. We think that doing theater in prison has cathartic value. In many Italian prisons, they’re doing theater now. In Tuscany, there’s a prison where they do very excellent theater. And for us, the inmates that do theater are breaking a glass wall that separates them from reality. From our background, we know that people who do that do it with great passion and enthusiasm.

When we were shooting, one of the prison guards who was working with us said, “Working with the inmates, we feel familiar with them, and we also feel pity for them. But we stop immediately, because our pity needs to be reserved for the victims of these men’s crimes -- for the widows and the orphans that these men created. And they’re right, but it’s also true that these convicts are acting their parts with such truth and such passion that you feel that they’re understanding something new about the world.

There’s a line in the film that unfortunately we had to edit out. It’s a scene in which a prisoner writes to his wife. He says, “Dear Luisa, I’m going to be in a play soon. I beg you, when I act on the stage, come to see me. Because when I act, I feel like I can forgive myself.”

When Brutus stands before Caesar’s corpse, and says, “I killed him but I loved him,” we were very moved, because in the eyes of this prison inmate, speaking about having killed someone, we could read in his eyes the look of someone who had killed, who had seen murder. Is he better than Marlon Brando?  Maybe not, but in this inmate, and in the others, you see something different. There’s something new there. What the guard told us was true, but it’s also true that there’s this new truth that they’re bringing to the material and to the audience.


What kind of political response does a film like this get in Italy?

In Italy, thanks to the fact that Berlusconi is no longer in government, we have a minister of justice who has come to present the film in prisons four different times. And we’ll be meeting with magistrates about the problems that exist within prisons, and to present the film.


Have your personal political views changed over the years?

Our personal politics haven’t changed, but the politics in the country have changed. We always say, “Resist, resist, resist.” Actually, we probably have changed. The life of a man and his politics are like a  river that flows and changes depending on the land and the terrain and the light. But it continues to be the same river, that’s flowing towards who knows what.


The reason I ask is because, even though you yourselves have had very committed political beliefs over the years, your films have always been very clear-eyed about ideology. Your work is not dogmatic. When you depict revolutionaries, with whom you may identify, you still show their follies – essentially, the failure of ideology.

Ideology, where we’re from, is a concept strictly related to political parties. True, our films have spoken about politics and revolutionaries -- their pain, their failure, their uncertainties, their betrayed utopias. But we never wanted to send political or ideological messages. We always tried to speak about women and men. These are based on people who worked with politics, people whom we knew -- at least in the '60s and '70s, at a time when reacting and engaging with politics was very dominant in the culture, from the US to Europe. We wanted to talk about the truth that surrounded these people and that surrounded us. But there was never a desire to transmit a particular ideology. We have our vision of the world. But we realize that over the years, and throughout our films, it’s modified a bit.





2 comments:

  1. Edelstein was a rave?

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  2. Most people who fail for lack of social skills talk of "office politics" doing them in, but the politics may be nothing more than normal interactions among people. If you have trouble with office politics, you may really be having trouble dealing with people.

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