The Berlin film festival wrapped up Sunday after handing its Golden Bear top prize to Italian prison docu-drama "Caesar Must Die" in what commentators called a worthy but conservative choice.
The picture shows real-life murderers and mafiosi from a high-security jail in Rome staging Shakespeare’s tragedy "Julius Caesar," with their own personal dramas giving resonance to the play’s themes of betrayal and vengeance.
The deeply humanist film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, aged 80 and 82, who have been making politically engaged cinema for half a century, was an early crowd pleaser at a festival which failed to produce a hands-down favorite.
Critics said the jury led by British director Mike Leigh had played it safe with its selections.
"The 62nd Berlinale had everything that this film festival needs — strong, political films from young, engaged film-makers in competition. Berlin can easily hold its own with Cannes and Venice this way," the website of German news weekly Der Spiegel said, referring to Europe’s other top cinema showcases.
"However ‘Caesar Must Die’ is unfortunately a very conservative selection."
Berlin’s daily Tagesspiegel agreed. "The jury shunned almost all the contemporary films that were admired or hotly debated at an otherwise pretty remarkable festival."
The Hollywood Reporter said the victory for "Caesar Must Die" marked a "major upset" over the works of young directors such as the Portuguese melodrama "Tabu," an inventive two-part black-and-white melodrama set in today’s Lisbon and colonial Africa.
Its director Miguel Gomes took home the Alfred Bauer Prize for works of particular innovation.
"Caesar Must Die," which was also filmed largely in black-and-white and whose dialogue stems mainly from the original Shakespeare, blends gentle humor with an emotional punch as the hardened criminals struggle to learn their lines and hit their marks.
"We hope that when the film is released to the general public that cinemagoers will say to themselves or even those around them … that even a prisoner with a dreadful sentence, even a life sentence, is and remains a human being," Paolo Taviani said as he and his brother claimed their trophy.
Last year, the harrowing Iranian family drama "A Separation" captured the Golden Bear and swept the acting prizes and is now nominated for two Oscars. Its director Asghar Farhadi served on this year’s jury.