as usual, starting from afar:
Years ago I used to review movies for a modestly prestigious movie site. It has been dormant for some time, but I continue to abuse the trust of local PR people and from time to time accept invitations to advance screenings. Tonight it was Caesar Must Die by Taviani brothers.
I am not a huge fan of I Taviani, but many years ago they made a couple of movies good enough so that whatever they have made since should be at least worth a look. Especially since they are pretty old guys and haven’t made too many movies to begin with.
Caesar Must Die is not a great movie by any means. It is one of those projects that look great on paper; as for the execution, ah well. The whole thing is a stage production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a top-security Rome jail, with all parts played by inmates. Like I said, it’s a great concept only if you’ve smoked enough and you’ve got access to state funds. In practice, it’s very hard to restrain yourself from aahing and oohing at the salutary uses of art in taking hardened killers and drug dealers away from the life of crime. Actually, I wouldn’t mind seeing a comedy on the subj: say, James Gandolfino playing an ex-con trying to make it as an actor on Broadway. Can’t be less convincing than two made men from ‘Ndragheta striving for Shakespearean nobility.
Ok, enough prologuing:
Something pinged inside when I read the words “Rebibbia Prison” on the screen. You see, for about a day in 1975 I was an inmate there.
I have no idea why I got transferred to Rebibbia for one day. The thing is, prior to that I had spent 5 days in Regina Coeli, the most renowned Roman jail. Why they decided on the day before the trial to transfer me to Rebibbia – who knows. After 5 days in an Italian jail you don’t even ask questions like that. To a stranger, an Italian jail is an exercise in absurdity, a Kafka-Borges-Catch-22 experience, a world where cause and effect constantly trade places. It is possible that my confusion was enhanced by my situation being unusual in the first place – I had left the Soviet Union a mere week or so earlier – and after a while this establishment would have yielded to analysis and revealed patterns whereby one could survive there in grace and even in style. But, looking back, perhaps it was better to spend a week in confusion and get out than spend years learning the ropes.
Another curious aspect of this ping is that it hinges on the word alone: Rebibbia. I have almost no physical memory of the place – just that it looked cleaner and newer than Regina Coeli (the latter was in tune with the rest of the city, old and groaning with history). And the only thing that happened to me there was sharing a cell with two huge oily Egyptians. Whatever they were inside for, the Italian law had appeared to scare the bejesus out of them, as they chattered nervously in Arabic nonstop, holding on to their huge suitcases and shooting me suspicious glances – as if the puny me was about to rob them.
At the checkout time I learned that the Egyptians missed some prison-issued utensils and somehow had tried to saddle me with the loss – an attempt I fought off with noble indignation. Since they didn’t speak a word of Italian (mine after 5 days at Regina Coeli had reached UN level), I easily got the upper hand with the turnkeys. Plus I was white, and the Egyptians were not, and we were in Italy. Nuff said.
Am I still prologuing?
At the trial I learned the precise charge: “rubata aggravata”, or aggravated robbery. Now Google tells me that my received grammar was all wrong, but that’s how I remember it. For a while I saved the tiny piece of paper that testified that “Signore such-and-such was found not guilty of such-and-such charge”, but I had moved too many times since.
This is what happened: like most Russki emigres waiting to be cleared en route to the US, I found a place to live in Ostia, a seaside town outside Rome. I was sharing a two-bedroom apartment with three fellow Russkis whom I had just met on the main piazza where Russians were milling about at all times, discussing everything, from how much you can get for a Soviet-made FED camera in Roman market to what is Cleveland as a destination and whether it is superior to Pittsburgh.
The four of us were sort of like a sociogeographical cross-section of emigration: one from Odessa, one from Moscow, one from Minsk, and one I don’t remember. Two had engineering degrees and two were just layabouts – the Odessa guy had vague ideas of “hooking up” with “the guys” and then who knows? I had no plans, period; living was enough for me, and there had to be a female Bobbie McGee behind the next corner.
The first night was housewarming. Much was drunk in the atmosphere of utter euphoria: Fucking Bolsheviks could kiss our Jewish asses. Vienna had been great, Rome was greater, and Brooklyn would beat them all. I passed out at the table and somehow crawled to the other room. En route I saw the lanky frame of “Odessa” stepping out on the terrace and climbing over the divider onto the terrace next door. It seemed weird, but my eyelids weighed a ton, and getting to bed was far too important.
I didn’t wake up on my own… (to be continued)