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Think performing a Shakespearean play is about nothing more than a bunch of guys running around in tights reciting some frou-frou poetry you can’t even understand? The convicts at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, a medium security prison in Kentucky, would disagree with you.

In one of the most inspiring but overlooked documentaries from last year, “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” out on DVD today, follows a group of murderers, pedophiles, and other felons as they audition for, rehearse, and finally perform a production of Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest“–not coincidentally a story of imprisonment, isolation and redemption–as part of their rehabilitation. Over the course of almost a year, as these hardened men work together, they not only learn to love the language of Shakespeare but they also find themselves challenged to ask questions about forgiveness and reconciliation. The words of Shakespeare become a lifeline, as the play becomes a point of focus and hope for some who are in the prison for life with no parole. For those, the beauty of Shakespeare is the only glimpse of transcendent beauty in a dark world.

Mixed in with interviews with the cast members/inmates as they wrestle with guilt and shame is a subtle commentary on the prison system itself. As the men share their past pain and ever-present despair, we come to view these inmates as people, not monsters. Some of the prisoners seem to be rehabilitated and are ready to return to society but are then denied parole again and again for arbitrary reasons. But at the same time, the documentary is not one sided as we see some inmates revert to their former deviant or violent behaviors only to be taken away to solitary confinement or to a maximum security prison. Sadly, for them the hope of redemption remains elusive.

So get thee to Netflix and celebrate your inner drama geek by renting this little film that is smart but never simplistic and is sure to remind you that even the darkest of hearts which have committed the most heinous of crimes are never beyond salvation.

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