Feature: From jail to Rome Film Fest, when inmates bring performance on "red carpet"

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No places could be more far away from each other, ideally and materially.

On the one side, the nice high-class cultural venue of the 11th Rome Film Festival with its red carpet. On the other, in a shabby northeast suburb, the Rebibbia prison: over 350 inmates, high walls, and a maximum-security ward.

Yet, for one day, they seemed to belong to the same world.

For the first time ever, on Oct. 20, a theatre show staged by a company of inmates performed directly for the Film Festival's audience gathered at the MAXXI Museum of 21st Century Arts.

The initiative met a main pledge made by festival's artistic director Antonio Monda of "bringing movies all across the city", and reaching the most different audiences.

Yet, this went even further. It was not cinema to go to Rebibbia, but the other way around.

The theatre piece was performed at the prison's auditorium for an audience of some 300 people, including 100 students from two high schools of Rome, and live-streamed in full-HD for the public at the MAXXI.

Some 20 actors were on the stage, all prisoners from the maximum-security ward mainly devoted to associative crimes, which in Italy means mafia-related crimes.

The event was unprecedented, and drew several authorities from politics, judiciary, the national penitentiary administration, and from Rome Tre University supporting the project.

The company performed excerpts of Dante Alighieri's "Inferno", the first part of 14th century epic poem "The Divine Comedy" widely seen as the most prominent work of Italian literature, and the basis of modern Italian language.

"Who in the world would have ever imagined maximum-security prisoners expressing themselves to the outside world through art, via web streaming and fibre-optic cable," director Fabio Cavalli told Xinhua.

"We really have to thank the penitentiary authorities for having let us do all this."

Authors described the piece as an example of "Enhanced Performing Art" fusing together theatre, cinema, and web. It was also a rather challenging script, with an emotionally strong impact.

Accompanied by live music, each actor performed in his own dialect according to the several translations of Dante's work made by other Italian poets throughout the centuries.

As authors recalled, "Dante's Inferno is like the description of an ancient prison, and its pages are full of horror and blame for human cruelty, but also compassion for the losers, and disdain for the crimes of the powerful."

All of this was on stage, and well conveyed to the public. The actors' performance was sometimes tense, often ironic, always touching.

Many of the excerpts were chosen for bearing a similarity with the sense of guilt, despair, hope, or longing typical of a prisoner's condition.

The project would also provide a highly educational chance, according to teachers who brought their students at the show.

"Bringing the kids here at Rebibbia help them tear down prejudices about prison and prisoners through an artistic experience," literature teacher Maria Cristina from Amaldi high school told Xinhua.

The 35-year-old teacher, who preferred not to give her surname, added she has brought students to the Rebibbia prison shows several times, and kids would usually "react enthusiastically."

"They are touched both by the beauty of the show, and by inmates' emotions. They empathize," said the teacher.

Out of this year's direct link with Rome Film Fest, the Rebibbia theatre project has produced 40 shows with three different companies of inmates since 2002. It drew some 46,000 people to watch the performances, according to the organizers.

The most notorious experience born out of this project was Shakespeare docu-drama "Caesar must die" by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, which won the Golden Bear Award at the 2012 Berlin Film Fest.

Director Cavalli stressed it would benefit both inmates and society, and he defended the prisoners' "right to culture."

"Article 27 of our constitution says penalty must not be punitive, it must rehabilitate ... And how do we want to rehabilitate evil, if not through beauty, culture, work, and education? What other tool do we have?" he said.

A 67 percent rate of repeat offenders is registered among Italian inmates, the Ministry of Justice stated in 2016.

Such rate decreased to 6 percent among inmates continuously engaged in the theatre project, according to statistics collected at Rebibbia between 2002 and 2013, and confirmed by Italy's National Institute for Prison Studies (ISSP). Endit

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