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The Taviani brothers' Caesar Must Die

The Taviani brothers' Caesar Must Die

The Bard Behind Bars, in the Taviani brothers adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

“Friends, Romans, countrymen…” may be the most famous line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, spoken by Marc Anthony as he begins his funeral oration for the slain Julius Caesar. But there’s a line that follows in Cesar Must Die (Cesare Deve Morire), the Taviani brothers’ new adaptation shot with prison inmates, that resonates more deeply: “These are men of honor—uomini d’onore,” Marc Anthony says with veiled sarcasm about Caesar’s old friend Brutus and his fellow assassins.


Little did Shakespeare know that uomini d’onore would gain a double meaning in the twentieth century, becoming slang for mafiosi. 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 directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani intuited, it’s a perfect fit. The themes of Shakespeare’s tragedy—friendship and loyalty, ambition and betrayal, subterfuge and murder—are at home in the corridors of Rebibbia, a high-security prison near Rome for murderers, drug traffickers, and other federal offenders.

Italy’s submission to the Oscars, Caesar Must Die is the 22nd film by the octogenarian brothers, best known for Padre Padrone (1977) and Night of the Shooting Stars (1982). Shot with a Red One, this was their first digital production. “It was a financial decision—and almost a curiosity,” Paolo Taviani says. “I have to say, we weren’t disappointed.”

For cinematographer Simone Zampagni, this was not only his first digital feature, but also his first job as director of photography. “To debut with two masters like them was a great fortune,” Zampagni says.

“Even though he’s just 40, he has long experience in film,” Taviani notes. “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, his uncle a focus puller, and his sister a screenwriter.

Zampagni began as camera loader on Ricky Tognazzi’s La Scorta (1992), then worked his way up to camera operator, most recently shooting two Italian television series: the police procedural Police District and the paranormal The Thirteenth Apostle.


But the Taviani’s films have been Zampagni’s true training ground. In 1998, he started as second camera assistant on You Laugh. This was followed by Resurrection  (2001), Luisa Sanfelice (2004), and The Lark Farm (2007). With these, he worked under Taviani’s longtime cinematographers Giuseppe Lanci (also a regular collaborator with Nanni Moretti) and Franco Di Giacomo (Il Postino). “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 Paolo Taviani, “Simone was on B camera and often filmed autonomously. And he filmed well! Someone who has a good, strong taste in setting the frame, you recognize that immediately. He’s the padrone, the owner of the image.” So when crewing up for Caesar, “We said, ‘Let’s give it a try!’ He’s young, he’s enthusiastic, and there wasn’t much money. We shot it in 22 days.”

Their budget was $1-million (versus $12-million for their preceding film). “We felt like kids again!” Taviani says. “Shooting with such little money unleashed an energy, an enthusiasm we’d forgotten we had.” [...]

Published in the February 2013 issue of American Cinematographer.

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