THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND
(director/writer: Fred Schepisi; cinematographer: Ian Baker; editor: Brian Kavanagh; music: Bruce Smeaton; cast: Arthur Dignam (Brother Francine), Simon Burke (Tom Allen), Charles McCallum (Brother Sebastian), Nick Tate (Brother Victor), John Frawley (Brother Celian), George Hanrahan (Gerry Duggan), Peter Cox (Brother James), John Diedrich (Fitz), Thomas Keneally (Father Marshall); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Fred Schepsi; Warner Home Video; 1976-Australia)
“Never caught my interest.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The talented Australian Fred Schepisi‘s (“Barbarosa”/”Plenty”/”Roxanne”) first feature film as writer and director, shot like a documentary, is an Australian New Wave film that is a coming of age story about a religious seeker. It’s a probing, slow-moving, joyless, semi-autobiographical tale about a Roman Catholic boys’ seminary boarding school in Australia, in the 1950s, where sexual desire is the problem for the students and for the brothers it’s how to protect their charges from sinful sexual behavior.
The Australian Film Commission provided partial financial support.
In the opening scene, a brother scolds an adolescent for showering in a crowded public locker-room without a bathing suit, and that gives you an idea of how repressive are the school’s attitudes to anything sexual.
The story follows 13-year-old Tom Allen (Simon Burke), a serious student whose calling for the church becomes questionable because of his masturbation and sinful thoughts. Meanwhile the ascetic Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam) prowls the school looking for evidence of ”the undisciplined mind.” In contrast, the hard-drinking Brother Victor (Nick Tate), someone less rigid than his colleagues, dismisses the harsh discipline over sexual matters enforced by the seminary and takes a more humanistic stand. There’s also a subplot about a secret student society that’s into sadomasochism, but fails to recruit Tom.
The well-photographed and well-made inflammatory film, on a mission to find out what is meant by ‘right thinking,’ never caught my interest, as it seemed to have all the answers and thereby never engaged me in its ethical arguments. It was an uneasy viewing experience, showing how forceful authoritarian figures can be to impressionable youths they control and how difficult it is to expect self-control from youngsters with awakening sexual desires.
REVIEWED ON 6/5/2014 GRADE: B-