Render Unto Caesar

In terms of sheer notoriety within the national culture, Italy’s Rebibbia prison is roughly the equivalent of Sing Sing or San Quentin penitentiaries in the United States.  Lacking the exotic locale of Alcatraz or Devil’s Island, Rebibbia has to make do with a sordid history that extends back to the days of Mussolini, and boasts (if that’s the right word) many of Italy’s most dangerous criminals and gangsters among its inmates.  From a bureaucratic point of view, its principal advantage as an icon of Italian judicial punishment lies in the fact that the town of Rebibbia is a suburb of Rome, and has metro service into the heart of the capital. Thus, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, journalists and the families of the accused can easily travel to the prison facility to attend the mafia megatrials that are occasionally staged within its secure environment.

But Rebibbia is probably best known to law-abiding citizens of Italy (and elsewhere) as the backdrop for a truly intense 2012 film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani: Caesar Must Die.  The Taviani brothers’ film depicts the process of casting, rehearsing and staging a theatrical production of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar‘ organized by the prison’s performing arts program.  The actors are inmates. The set is the prison itself.  The storyline is the stuff of legend as well as history.  Everyone knows the ending — or thinks they do.  This is a film you definitely have to see: you’ll never think of Shakespeare, Italy, or Rome the same way again.


So why the mention of Rebibbia at this particular time?

Pope Francis will travel to Rome’s Rebibbia prison on Holy Thursday (April 2) to meet inmates and celebrate the “Coena Domini” Mass, which commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus with His disciples the night before His crucifixion. As part of the ceremony, he will wash male and female inmates’ feet, [because] Holy Thursday Mass marks the commandment of love, demonstrated when Jesus washed the feet of His disciples.

The gesture of washing disciples’ feet was also presented in the New Testament as a demonstration of humility and an acknowledgement of our common humanity marked by equality before God.  That part of the message, at least, is worth bearing in mind.

No word on whether Pope Francis has actually seen ‘Caesar Must Die‘ .. or whether he prefers the message of Rosselini’s neo-realist classic Europa ’51.



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