Berlin Film Festival: Documentaries take cameras behind bars


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Eyes may be the windows to the soul, but cameras are the windows to the cell in two wildly different but gripping films premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Saturday’s entry in the competition section, “Cesare deve morire’ (‘Caesar Must Die’) from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, is a dramatic documentary set in Rome’s Rebibbia Prison, where inmates from the high-security section are staging William Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Julius Caesar’ for a public audience. The Tavianis capture six months of rehearsals leading up to opening night, and the struggles of the men as they internalize Shakespeare’s dialogue detailing power, betrayal and manipulation, all themes they know too well from the lives of crime that led them to incarceration.


The inmates-turned-actors find resonance in Caesar’s ancient capital reflected in their own corrupt cities, be it Naples or contemporary Rome. The Taviani brothers, now in their 80s, have been making films since the 1960s; their films have been awarded a Palme d´Or (‘Padre Padrone,’ 1977) and the Grand Prix du Jury (‘The Night of the Shooting Stars,’ 1982) in Cannes and the two were honored with a Golden Lion for Career Achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 1986.

After viewing a presentation at Rebibbia of a prisoner reading from Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy,’ the directors were moved to design the film and theater project with with Fabio Cavalli, a stage director whose theatrical program for the incarcerated has resulted in more than 100 convicts performing behind prison walls for 22,000 audience members over the last 10 years. Most of the film is shot in black and white, with color coming in for the energetic stage performance. Along with Cavalli, the Tavianis developed a guiding screenplay for the filming, leaving ample room for chance and improvisation. The action feels at times stagy, but it’s hard to fault the characters for playing larger than life when they are serving life sentences.

Nearly Shakespearean characters also populate Werner Herzog’s “Death Row,” a four-part documentary series made for TV. This lengthy companion piece to last year’s Herzog prison doc “Into the Abyss” will be shown in the U.S. as a series on the cable channel Investigation Discovery.

After shots of a prison death chamber and the cells leading up to it, a brief narration from Herzog states his position respectfully disagreeing with the death penalty (the same sequence opens for each episode). Each episode then offers a portrait of criminality, personalized.

I may sympathize with your cause, says Herzog to James Barnes in one episode, “but I don’t have to like you.” Barnes, a convicted murderer who confessed to another brutal slaying while in prison, and two more during Herzog’s filming, is a consummate actor to the extent that it’s unclear what his current relationship to the truth might be. A trip into his past turns up juvenile delinquency, but also physical and possibly sexual abuse. In each episode, family, lawyers and media clarify the facts of the story, but leave it up to the viewer to decide whether these individuals deserve death at the hands of the state. It may not be pleasant spending time with these subjects, but it is riveting.



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-- Susan Stone in Berlin