Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Bard Behind Bars

Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Bard Behind Bars

Article excerpt

"Friends, Romans, countrymen ..." might be the most famous line in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, but there is a line that follows in Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Caesar Must Die (Cesare Deve Morire), an adaptation featuring prison inmates, that resonates more deeply: "These are men of honor, uomini d'onore," Marc Anthony says with veiled sarcasm about Caesar's friend Brutus and his fellow assassins.

Little did Shakespeare know that uomini d'onore would become slang for Mafiosi in the 20th century. Certainly, he couldn't anticipate how his lines would sound when spoken by members of the Mafia, Camorra and Ndrangheta, Italy's organized-crime networks. But, as the Taviani brothers intuited, it's a perfect fit. The themes of Shakespeare's tragedy - friendship and loyalty, ambition and betrayal -are at home in Rebibbia, a highsecurity prison for murderers, drug traffickers and other federal offenders.

Caesar Must Die is the 22nd film by the Tavianis, who are best known for Padre Padrone (1 977) and Night of the Shooting Stars (1982), and it is their first digital production. Shooting with a Red One MX "was a financial decision, and almost a curiosity," says Paolo Taviani. "I have to say, we weren't disappointed."

It was also the first digital feature for cinematographer Simone Zampagni, as well as his first job as a director of photography. "To debut with two masters like them was a great fortune," Zampagni says.

Taviani notes, "Even though Simone is just 40, he has long experience in film. He comes from a film dynasty. In his father's garden are benches from a Fellini film." Indeed, Zampagni's grandfather was a gaffer, his father a grip-equipment designer, and his uncle a focus puller.

Zampagni began as a loader on Ricky Tognazzi's La Scorta (1992) and worked his way up to camera operator. But he calls the Tavianis' films his true training ground. In 1998, he started as second camera assistant on You Laugh. He then moved on to Resurrection (2001), Luisa Sanfeke (2004) and 7he Lark Farm (2007); on those projects, he worked under Taviani's longtime cinematographers, Giuseppe Lanci and Franco Di Giacomo. "Franco Di Giacomo was in essence my teacher because I worked with him for 13 years, starting as loader and ending up as operator," says Zampagni, "He left his stamp on my photography and approach to lighting."

"On The Lark Farm," says Taviani, "Simone was on B camera and often filmed autonomously, and he filmed well. You can recognize immediately someone who has good, strong taste in setting the frame. He is the padrone, the owner of the image. When we started gathering crew for Caesar, we said, let's give it a try!' Simone is young and enthusiastic, and he knew we didn't have much money. We shot the picture in 22 days."

Working with a budget equivalent to $1 million, "we felt like kids again! " says Taviani. (Their preceding film, The Lark Farm, cost $12 million.) "Shooting with such little money unleashed an energy, an enthusiasm we'd forgotten we had."

The crew was bare bones - Zampagni operated the B camera and Steadicam, Andrea Fastella operated the A camera, and there were two focus pullers, a gaffer, a key grip and a data manager. All other crew roles were filled by prisoners.

Like the convicts who perform in the film, some of Zampagni's crew had prior experience from the prison's theater lab. Since 2002, theater director Fabio Cavalli has worked inside Ribibbia, getting the convicts to adapt the works of Shakespeare and Dante and other classic into their own dialects. Over time, a troupe of actors has emerged. It was seeing them recite Dante's Inferno that got the Taviani brothers thinking about a film. Ultimately, Caesar Must Die was made in collaboration with Cavalli, who plays himself staging Julius Caesar inside Ribibbia.

Zampagni recalls the first few days of the shoot: "The prison guards put us on guard, saying, 'Don't trust the prisoners too much.' It was the prisoners who broke the ice. …

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