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In Prison And Among Zombies, Shakespeare's Reflection Shines

Jan 31, 2013
Originally published on February 6, 2013 10:39 am

The Italian art-house film Caesar Must Die and the teen zombie-comedy Warm Bodies do not, at first glance, appear to have much in common. But they share a bit of creative DNA, both being inventive riffs that turn Shakespearean tragedies into something else entirely.

Start with the one that's more or less Shakespeare straight — straight as it can be in Italian, anyway. Caesar Must Die takes its audience both behind the scenes and behind bars at the maximum security wing of Rebibbia prison outside Rome to watch a select group of inmates rehearsing Julius Caesar, just a few miles from the spot where the real Caesar was slain.

The folks on-screen are actual convicts — murderers, drug traffickers, mafiosi — and yes, the stabbing death of Caesar, even in rehearsal, feels real. But Caesar Must Die is not a documentary. The Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, have been blurring the line between reality and fiction in their films for six decades.

Here, although they identify the convicts and their crimes early on just as they would in a nonfiction film, they also script every moment — blending life offstage and on until it's hard to say whether the lifers scrambling to their cells after a jail-yard assassination are acting or simply engaged in self-preservation.

Eventually, rehearsals shot in black-and-white give way to the vibrant color of a public performance that ends with cheers and a standing ovation. The men and their characters seem briefly indistinguishable.

Then they return to their cells, Caesar's head bowed, Cassius subdued as the door clangs shut behind him and he surveys his spartan surroundings.

"Since I got to know art," he says, "this cell has become a prison."

If Caesar Must Die straddles the line between fact and fiction, Warm Bodies invents a whole new genre. It's a romantic-comedy riff on Romeo and Juliet, involving zombies — a rom-zom-com, if you will. Its star-crossed lovers: a rosy-cheeked heroine named Julie (Teresa Palmer) who complains about her overprotective father, and a paler-than-pale hero with vacant eyes (Nicholas Hoult) who is livelier — at least in voiceover — than you might expect.

"Why can't I connect with people?" he wonders. "Oh, right, it's because I'm dead."

R, who can only remember the first letter of his name (but what's in a name, right?) is a walking-dead Romeo who's dimly aware that his appetite for fresh brains is a handicap when he's around a pretty girl. Still, he's gallant enough to rescue Julie when her friends are killed in an encounter with his flesh-eating buddies.

A little slow on the verbal uptake — no "parting is such sweet sorrow" for this guy — R has a Mercutio-like buddy named M (Rob Corddry) who's willing to do battle for him. Julie, meanwhile, has a reluctantly supportive Nurse-like pal (Analeigh Tipton), and though there's only a zombie plague on one of their houses, there is a balcony scene before things head in a more undead direction for a decidedly nontragic, disappointingly conventional battle finale.

There's not a lot of gore — or even suspense — in Warm Bodies, and the script plays fast and loose with the zombie rules invented by Night of the Living Dead creator George Romero. (Whose last name, let's note, is just Romeo with an extra R). But director Jonathan Levine's area of expertise is confused-young-men comedies like The Wackness and 50/50, so he really gets this hero's predicament. And like the Taviani brothers in Caesar Must Die, he finds strategies in Warm Bodies to make what has long been considered a deathless tale undead in a new way.

Remarkable, when smart directors hold the Bard's mirror up to nature, what gets reflected.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Italian art-house film "Caesar Must Die" and the teen zombie-comedy "Warm Bodies" may not appear to have much in common, but they share some creative DNA, says Bob Mondello. They're both riffs on Shakespeare.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Start with the one that's more or less Shakespeare straight, well, straight Italian. "Caesar Must Die" takes us behind the scenes and also behind bars at a maximum-security prison outside Rome, where inmates are rehearsing "Julius Caesar" just a few miles from the spot where the real Caesar was slain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAESAR MUST DIE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: The folks onscreen are actual convicts - murderers, drug traffickers, mafiosi. And, yes, the stabbing death of Caesar feels real.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAESAR MUST DIE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: "Caesar Must Die" is not a documentary. The Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, have been blurring the line between reality and fiction in their films for six decades, and they're not about to stop now.

They identify the convicts and their crimes early on just as they would in a non-fiction film, but they also script every moment, blending life offstage and on until it's hard to say whether the lifers scrambling to their cells after a jail-yard assassination are acting or engaged in self-preservation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Eventually, black and white rehearsals give way to the vibrant color of a public performance that ends with cheers and a standing ovation. The men and their characters seem briefly indistinguishable. Then they return to their cells, Caesar's head bowed, Cassius uncharacteristically subdued as the door clangs shut behind him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAESAR MUST DIE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: Since I got to know art, he says...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAESAR MUST DIE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: ...this cell has become a prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: If "Caesar Must Die" straddles the line between fact and fiction, "Warm Bodies" invents a whole new genre. It's a romantic comedy based on "Romeo and Juliet" involving zombies, a rom-zom-com, if you will. Its star-crossed lovers: a rosy-cheeked heroine who complains about her overprotective father, and a paler-than-pale hero who is livelier, at least in voiceover, than you might expect.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WARM BODIES")

NICHOLAS HOULT: (as R) What's wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can't I connect with people? Oh, right, it's because I'm dead. I shouldn't be so hard on myself. I mean, we're all dead. This girl's dead; that guy's dead.

MONDELLO: R, who can only remember the first letter of his name - but what's in a name - is a walking dead Romeo as played by Nicholas Hoult, aware that his appetite for fresh brains is a handicap when he's around a pretty girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WARM BODIES")

HOULT: (as R) Don't be creepy, don't be creepy, don't be creepy.

MONDELLO: But still gallant enough to rescue Julie, his warm-blooded Juliet, when she encounters his flesh-eating buddies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WARM BODIES")

TERESA PALMER: (as Julie) Why did you save me?

MONDELLO: Alas, his undead tongue is not quite as quick as his undead mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WARM BODIES")

HOULT: (as R) Safe, keep you safe.

MONDELLO: Not quite parting is such sweet sorrow, but that's OK. Love will find a way. R has a Mercutio-like buddy named M. Teresa Palmer is Julie, has a nurse-like friend...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WARM BODIES")

ANALEIGH TIPTON: (as Nora) And I can't even - you don't smell - he doesn't smell rotten.

MONDELLO: A rose by any other name, right? And though there's only a zombie plague on one of their houses, there is a balcony scene before things go in a more undead direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Is that the lark that sings so out of tune? There is not a lot of gore or even suspense in "Warm Bodies," and the script plays fast and loose with the zombie rules invented by "Night of the Living Dead" creator George Romero, whose last name, let's note, is just Romeo with an extra R.

But director Jonathan Levine's area of expertise is confused-young-men comedies like "The Wackness" and "50/50," so he really gets this hero's predicament. And like the Taviani brothers in "Caesar Must Die," he finds strategies in "Warm Bodies" to make what has long been considered a deathless tale undead in a new way. Remarkable, when smart directors hold the bard's mirror up to nature, what gets reflected. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.