In Italian Prisons, Show Must Go On


The latest U.S. Department of State’s human rights report for Italy (2011), notes, “According to the Ministry of Justice, at year’s end there were 66,897 inmates being held in 206 prisons designed to hold 45,700.”

“Caesar Must Die” depicts prison theater.

Even today, despite continued overcrowding and also underfunding due to Italy’s desperate economic condition, a glimmer of culture grows within prison walls: the theatre.

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The Los Angeles Times reported last week 110 prison theater groups have formed, including an acclaimed troupe of mobsters and drug traffickers at Rebibbia. Reporter Tom Kington notes:

Italy leads Europe in prison theater, and without it the situation in jails here would be much worse,” said Carmelo Cantone, the head of prisons in the Italian region of Tuscany.

Film director Matteo Garrone used real-life Naples gangsters in his acclaimed 2008 mafia drama, “Gomorrah.” Then he went further, casting Aniello Arena, a former Naples hit man doing life in a Tuscan prison, in his film “Reality,” a lead role that won rave reviews at Cannes last year.

In the thick of all this live prison theatre is director Fabio Cavalli. At Rebibbia, according to journalist Kington, “theater has pulled in 30,000 spectators since 2006 to watch plays staged by three theater groups he [Cavalli] runs.”

As creativity will do, Cavalli’s productions have inspired other artists. Kington again:

Cavalli’s rehearsals for and production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” using convicts from the prison’s high-security organized crime wing, were the basis for “Caesar Must Die,” directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, which won the Golden Bear award at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival. The film was Italy’s candidate for the foreign-language Oscar this year, but failed to make the short list. It’s scheduled for release in Los Angeles on Feb. 22…

…”On average, 65% of Italian prisoners go back to committing crimes after their release, but for those who have acted in jail, it’s nearly zero,” [Cavalli] said.

Miriam Rinn, also reporting last week for on the film’s production, points out:

Acting in a play does not eliminate the tensions men feel in prison, and there are a few [film] scenes of the prisoners arguing with each other and with the guards. The Tavianis clearly feel sympathy with the oppressed and the imprisoned, and there is a fair amount of standard left-wing observations of the injustice of it all. But these remarks are easy to overlook because the power of the movie comes from the performances in the play. It is the transformative nature of art that is the real point here. The actors are able to see their lives as grander and more meaningful through the prism of the play, and that makes the ending when they return to their cells that much more poignant.

The European magazine reported in 2010 that the prison theatre movement appears to have arisen in 1988:

The theatrical laboratory of the prison of Volterra (‘Laboratorio Teatrale nel Carcere di Volterra’) was launched in August 1988 by the Carte Blanche association, managed by Armando Punzo. Many classical as well as contemporary theatrical productions have been staged since then, from La Gatta Cenerentola (a Neapolitan fable from the 1600s similar to Cinderella) to the recent Alice in Wonderland – A Theatrical Essay On The End Of A Civilisation, from Orlando Furioso (‘The Frenzy of Orlando’) to The Emptiness, Or What’s Left Of Bertolt Brecht, not forgetting the company’s pi√®ce de résistence, Marat/ Sade; the 1963 play by the German Peter Weiss details the prison life of the French artistocrat the Marquis de Sade. ‘I simply didn’t see a prison,’ declares Armando Punzo as he recounts the birth of the project. ‘I saw a theatre through the bars. My view didn’t stop at the barriers. I began to see a potential in the inmates’ qualities which was not immediately obvious. That’s why they began to believe in me and my project. We started working together and achieved astounding results.’

As the lab became successful, it began to tour Italy. That success appears to have led to theatre experiments in other prisons.

You can read and hear a St. Louis Public Radio review of the new Caesar Must Die film here.