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Still from The Act of Killing (2012)


Caesar Must Die and The Act of Killing are experiments that mix fiction and reality in distinct ways in order to investigate the relationship between freedom and violence.


cover art

The Act of Killing

Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Cast: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto

(US DVD: 7 Jan 2014)

cover art

Caesar Must Die

Director: Paolo Taviani
Cast: Cosimo Rega, Salvatore Striano, Giovanni Arcuri

(US DVD: 24 Dec 2013)

The first lines of narrated dialogue in Martin Scorsese‘s Goodfellas come from protagonist Henry Hill (Ray Liotta): “As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster… To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.” The lines are precipitated by an act of graphic violence.


By the end of the film the viewer will witness many more such acts. Goodfellas is a movie based on a true story in which crime pays very well for a little while. At the film’s end, Hill’s friends are dead or in prison, he has become a rat, and he must live out his days in anonymity, eating imitation Italian food.


However, that down ending is not the reason audiences are drawn to films like Goodfellas. To the contrary, it is the acting out of a gangster’s freedom—which is “better than being the president”—that gives gangster films their appeal. As Thomas Schatz writes in Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and The Studio System, “The gangster’s propensity for asserting his individual will through violent action and self-styled profiteering renders him an ideal screen persona. The fact that his assertiveness flaunts social order even heightens his individuality. He is surrounded by dull-witted underlings and pursued by inept police in a confused moral climate that allows him ample opportunity.”


Working backwards from the final element Schatz identifies, one could say the “confused moral climate” breeds inept police and those that desire to carry out the orders of powerful wrongdoers, as well as allows the ascension of gangsters to the highest place within the social order. In this sense, even the gangster who benefits from the freedom to transgress (the supposed top dog) is also symptomatic of a muddled morality that is the underlying disease. Therefore the “confused moral climate” is the most powerful controlling force in the chain, whether or not its players recognize it to be so.


Two acclaimed films from 2012 illustrate these issues central to the gangster film. Recently released on DVD and other formats, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die (2012) and Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Act of Killing (2012) are experiments that mix fiction and reality in distinct ways in order to investigate the relationship between freedom and violence. The manner in which these filmmakers go about examining that relationship affects each film’s contribution to the “confused moral climate”. Whereas Caesar Must Die positions art as pointing to redemption and/or contrition, The Act of Killing basks in the audacity and inevitability of amorality.


Caesar Must Die is a drama in which real prisoners audition for, rehearse and perform a prison-sanctioned stage production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in the high-security wing of Rome’s Rebibbia prison. The film begins with the end of the stage production, in full color. Brutus (Salvatore Striano) is eulogized as having lived, killed and died “to honor freedom”. When the play ends, the prisoners/actors celebrate on stage and the crowd cheers.


Still from Caesar Must Die (2012)

Still from Caesar Must Die (2012)


But after the audience leaves, the actors must stay, and in a sober sequence we see them locked in their cells, one man after another. From the opening sequences, the view of Caesar Must Die is that true freedom is an ideal rarely achieved. While the violence of Shakespeare’s play allows the characters and audience of the stage production to mourn for the tragic Brutus, the violence of the actors’ lives has led them here, to their cells in Rebibbia.


The Act of Killing is a documentary in which gangster Anwar Congo and his friends/associates recount their involvement in the massacres of supposed communists and ethnic Chinese that took place in Indonesia from 1965 to 1966. Oppenheimer gives Congo, Herman Koto and others the opportunity to immortalize their killings in movie vignettes in which they star and “direct”. Congo and Koto are all too ready to perform, together reasoning that “we have to show-that this is the history-this is who we are!”


In the first reenactment, which is not a part of the fiction movie stylization that will take place throughout the film, Congo demonstrates a garroting technique that he created to reduce bloodshed. He alternates between passive and active voice as he describes his role in “unnatural” deaths. After this recreation, his “victim” laughs while Congo dances for the camera in a bit of murderer’s minstrelsy. The “victim” observes, “He’s a happy man.” Indeed, Congo isn’t confined to a cell, but rather celebrated as a hero of an anti-communist movement. He is shown as a “free man”—a phrase that is at the core of the film’s murky morality.


Joshua Oppenheimer forgets Tony Soprano’s maxim, “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.”

The Taviani brothers and Oppenheimer create structures for their tales that ground the action in the criminality of their main characters, but the respective tones differ considerably. In Caesar Must Die, the black and white second act begins with the audition process of the prisoners. Asked to convey sadness and anger, the staged scene of tryouts is a presentation of raw emotion. Yet an additional layer of non-fiction storytelling follows, and it has a serious, sobering function. Each man looks directly into the camera as his crime and sentence appear in text on screen. Charged with drug trafficking, organized crime or murder, our actors are all confined to the prison for a number of years, some sentenced to the most damning term of “life meaning life”. Most of the time we spend with the men of Caesar Must Die is confined—to black and white cinematography and to the corridors and cells of a prison rehearsal space—so the consequences of their actions are ever present and emphasized cinematographically. 


Oppenheimer, on the other hand, focuses almost his entire film on the absurd freedom his characters enjoy. Congo goes anywhere he likes. He literally scouts locations for cinematic retellings of his murderous past. He recalls being known as a “movie theater gangster” who sold tickets outside of theaters and who would sing and dance his way out of an Elvis movie screening on his way to commit a murder. “It was like we were killing…happily,” he remembers.


He and his crew sing drunkenly in between meetings with a governor and newspaper publisher Ibrahim Sinik, who says of Congo “this guy’s a star”. Another official, a leader of the 3 million-strong Pancasila Youth, says life was better without democracy and under dictatorship, but that gangsters like Congo are “free men” who want to enjoy life in their style. To celebrate the “free men” is an outlook shared by most of the people we meet in the film. The freedom they enjoy, despite and indeed because of their past actions, is the single most recurring theme in Oppenheimer’s movie.


On a basic level, one could say that the Tavianis and Oppenheimer are presenting the truth that unfolds in front of their cameras. Caesar Must Die does utilize imprisoned men who have been brought to justice. The Act of Killing does concern an altogether different group of men, whose crimes are more heinous, but who enjoy wide-ranging support from governmental officials to paramilitary leaders to common citizens. The first group is not free. The second group is free.


But these are more complex films than that dichotomy suggests, and there’s no mistaking the desire on the part of all of the filmmakers to explore the lasting impact of violence and the elusiveness of true freedom. That desire motivates the choice to fuse non-fiction with fiction. In a February 2013 article about the Taviani brothers, Larry Rohter of the New York Times quoted Caesar Must Die collaborator Fabio Cavalli, who helped to write the film and plays the director within the film: “‘The themes of guilt and friendship, betrayal and conspiracy are at the center of Shakespeare’s play, and also at the center of the life experience of the actors,’ many of whom are serving terms for Mafia- or Camorra-related crimes, Mr. Cavalli said. ‘So many actors and directors had come to Rebibbia,’ he continued, but until the Tavianis came along, ‘nobody understood that here was an opportunity to make a movie about this extraordinary environment so full of art, the hope of freedom, and consciousness.’”


Oppenheimer has participated in many interviews and discussions about his film. In January 2013, he said to Sheerly Avni of the Jewish Daily Forward, “when I encountered perpetrators who were so boastful and proud of their past deeds, I felt like theirs was the most important story I could follow. I think the tradition of documentary films is that we talk about victims to feel good about ourselves, and to deny the fact that we are much closer to perpetrators than we realize.”


These comments and others correspond with the films’ diverging views of crime and punishment, and of violence and freedom. In Caesar Must Die, merging real life with Shakespeare is intended to create a realization within the prisoners that there is a way out, or at least another, more purposeful and hopeful way to approach life (even when confined). By reliving their own circumstances through characters like the powerful Caesar, the conspiring Cassius and the tragic Brutus, the prisoners “understood and by portraying what they had witnessed, it was a way to bring it all to the surface,” according to Vittorio Taviani in a 2012 London Film Festival interview. “It wasn’t a resolution—but it was something on the road towards a resolution.”


At odds with this positive motivation is The Act of Killing, which tries to force audience members to acknowledge their roles as oppressors of others. In his interview with Avni, Oppenheimer said that simply by wearing certain clothing or using certain products, “We are maybe not as close to the slaughter as Anwar, but we are partaking of it.” While it is worthwhile to consider the conditions of production and consumption and incidental complicity, it’s as if Oppenheimer allows that intention to cloud any deeper judgment he might otherwise make about Congo.


This type of moral equivalence continues throughout his public statements, including this excerpt that appears on the Harvard Film Archive page for “Stories We Tell Ourselves: Two Films by Joshua Oppenheimer”: “I ask you to see a part of yourself in Anwar, a man who has killed perhaps 1,000 people. Empathizing with a killer does not mean we empathize any less with the victims. In fact, the contrary is true. Empathy is not a zero-sum game.”


Yet a major weakness of The Act of Killing is that in being a showcase for Congo and his friends, the movie does largely relegate victims of the genocide to afterthought status. The reluctance of victims’ families to appear in interviews or on camera is understandable. After all, the murderers who killed their family members are still protected by those in power. However, only occasionally does the chronicling of the murderers call the audience’s attention to the memory of the victims. One testimony, from a man whose stepfather was murdered, is the rare exception—a complex display of memory, emotion and self-preserving performance unlike anything else that appears in the film.


Elsewhere, Oppenheimer devotes too much of the running time to the most obvious points of his story, such as the corruption of the government and paramilitary forces and the alternately humorous and horrific incongruity of these old killers playing dress-up and acting out Hollywood fantasies. It’s been said that the movie forces the killers to question their misdeeds. But more often the enterprise allows them the liberty to continue enjoying their freedom as “movie theater gangsters” and to reminisce about their killing days. Oppenheimer forgets Tony Soprano’s maxim, “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.”


The question of how men who committed such deeds could rationalize their actions is present within the film. But that investigation weakens, derailed by semantics (a sort of avoidance of responsibility). For example, on break from shooting a reenactment, two of the men argue over the difference between the words “cruel” and “sadistic”. These words are labels that the men in the film cling to and/or disavow depending on the image they are trying to project at any given moment.


“Fellow executioner” Adi Zulkadry is in many ways the most puzzling character in the film. More than any other man in the group, he’s able to articulate how their actions created a cultural wound that has lasting effects. But he also gleefully recalls killing his girlfriend’s father for being Chinese. He says “the key is to find a way not to feel guilty,” and the gangsters enjoy their participation in The Act of Killing as part of that process of denial.


The cumulative impression is that they take advantage of Oppenheimer’s moral relativism and deceive him into participating in their project of historical memory. We watch them terrorize a new generation of women and children in their reenacted history. This time, the acts of violence might be staged, but with killers as movie directors, the fire, the fear and the tears are real.


Caesar Must Die, on the other hand, never allows the weight of its moral probing to be used by its criminals as a weapon. And it certainly never re-victimizes the innocent. The juxtaposition of artistic freedom with concrete confinement causes the prisoners/actors to evaluate the circumstances of their criminal lifestyle. In this context, when Cassius (Cosimo Rega) asks, “Am I perhaps mistaken?” the line is imbued with the personal histories of all of the men at Rebibbia prison.


These men also parse words, but the effect is different from that of the shallow semantics in The Act of Killing. Here, they ponder the nature of nobility and the meaning of trust. So many words that appear in Shakespeare’s text have ironic or altered meanings within criminal justice. “Trust” for instance is a word to which one prisoner responds with, “I did and look what happened to me.”


Also present in Caesar Must Die is the rationalization of murder. Brutus says that Caesar (Giovanni Arcuri) will “defeat all of Rome” and this is how he justifies the action to himself. For Brutus, seeing Caesar’s assassination as an act of patriotism is a way to separate the act of killing from an individual motivation. Crucially, however, Brutus comes to see the error of this line of thought when Cassius says that Antony (Antonio Frasca) must also die. Brutus responds, “No Cassius, justice is not a slaughterhouse and we are men of justice, not butchers.”


To be fair, the themes that exist within Shakespeare’s original text necessarily lend Caesar Must Die a more dramatically satisfying structure when compared to the chaos of unpunished genocide that is the backdrop for The Act of Killing. But the Tavianis must be credited for using the events of dictatorship, conspiracy, assassination and retribution to help incarcerated men connect the dots of history and literature to their own misdeeds. Brutus wishes he could find a way to rebuke Caesar “without tearing open his chest” but he is blind to other courses of action.


Upon delivering that line, Salvatore Striano, the actor playing Brutus, is overcome by the memory of a time in his life that very dilemma presented itself. Later, when Brutus is begging for someone, anyone, to help him die, his desperation (as well as the other players’ refusal to comply) seem more like acts of personal atonement than scripted action. 


Meanwhile, Anwar Congo becomes a sort of tragic hero to Oppenheimer, who eventually focuses the film’s attention on his being haunted by past victims and possibly feeling remorse. That the central dramatic question of The Act of Killing depends on conjuring sympathy for Congo is a severe miscalculation. Oppenheimer has said that the audience should recognize its own proximity to Congo within a moral climate that frames people as good or evil. But the concluding evidence of the film, including Congo’s tears, his asking “have I sinned?” and his gagging and heaving, concentrate all of our emotional and intellectual attention on the killer in order to humanize him. His victims remain off screen, all equal to Congo and to you and me within Oppenheimer’s view of morality, but given no voice in the exchange of movie subject and viewer.   


To return to Schatz’ definition of the gangster film, we see in both movies depictions of “confused moral climate[s]”. Caesar Must Die invites the audience to see how the Rome of Shakespeare’s play might exist in some way wherever we live. And in this movie about a play, art and literature enable a kind of self-examination that resonates in the real lives of its subjects, who move away from confusion and “on the road towards a resolution.” The subjects of The Act of Killing begin and end their tale in moral confusion. No amount of play acting or boastful reminiscence provides any clarity, repentance or expiation.


Where does this leave the audience? In a promotional interview with Vice (video below), Errol Morris (one of the film’s advocates and executive producers) best describes our position: “I think we learn nothing.”


Tagged as: gangster film
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