Retro Review: The Devil’s Playground

The Devil’s Playground (1976)

Directed by Fred Schepisis
Written by Fred Schepisis
Produced by Fred Schepisis
Starring Charles McCallum, John Frawley, Arthur Dignam, Nick Tate, Peter Cox, Jonathan Hardy, Gerry Duggan, Thomas Keneally, Sheila Florance and Simon Burke

“Most filmmaking newcomers nowadays can only dream of making a debut film this sharply excellent.”

Review by David Morgan-Brown:

One of the more forgotten highlights of the Australian New Wave in the ‘70s was The Devil’s Playground, a delicately played-out film that delves right into the darkness of the characters’ murky faith, recalling the very best of Ingmar Bergman’s own films that deal with the stresses and contradictions of the religious lifestyle. This makes for an incredibly personal and confident directorial debut by Fred Schepisi, an advertising man who spent four years gathering the finances and investments needed to helm his vision – the film just about nearly made its money back, but was a critical success and planted itself as a defining Aussie film of its decade, as well as firmly kickstarting Schepisi’s career.

Loosely based on Schepisi’s own experiences as a youngster, we see 13 year old Tom (Simon Burke), a young pupil at an all-boys Catholic seminary, and the life he and others (pupils and Brothers) lead at this highly pressurised religious setting. With little plot progression and more of a collection of everyday life at this seminary, we witness the inner tensions of Tom (and some of the Brothers) as he is continuously provoked, pushing him to breaking point. Although the film has plenty of time to look at other characters, Tom is the main focal point. Simon Burke, who was nominated for an AFI Best Actor award, gives a rather superb performance by instinctively portraying the frustration of his dissatisfied place in the seminary, wonderfully capturing the mood of a blossoming young teenager. I wouldn’t say his acting skills are quite as flawless and as honed as his adult contemporaries in the film, with some of Simon’s more grandiose pieces of acting falling just short of hitting the high mark, but his acting is still essential to contributing a good majority of the film’s emotional and thematic core. Simon was discovered by Schepisi and his casting director wife Rhonda when they noticed him as a regular at the Nimrod Theatre in Sydney, and he seemed like an enthusiastic kid keen on theatre and getting into the business – he turned out to be exactly what the role of Tom needed.

The differing characters that make up the Brothers really works for the film as they each seem to present a different attitude towards their faith. Brother Victor (Nick Tate) is the rowdiest of the lot, and the Brother most inclined for a cold one, who at points in the film tests his own faith as he sets himself out into the world and flirts with women. There’s the elderly Brother Sebastian (Charles McCullen) who has been in the game for so long that he’s having his own doubts about the strict pedantic nature of the disciplines in the religion. There’s the perfectly content and comical Brother Arnold (Jonathan Hardy) based on an inspiring English/Latin/geography/music teacher Schepisi had at his seminary (according to his interview with Peter Malone). And in a stunning and precise performance, there’s Arthur Dignam as Brother Francine whose stoic sensibilities are replaced with a spiteful rant about the failings the religion has given his life. Dignam’s work in this film, and in particular his final scene, is at a high calibre of acting and conveying a deep sense of regret that has accumulated over many years. Schepisi mentions in the film’s DVD commentary and in the Malone interview that each of the Brothers are examples of how each of the kids, specifically Tom, could end up as.

A curious and surprisingly memorable cameo comes from Thomas Kineally (an ex-seminarian himself, as well as the novelist of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith which was adapted by Schepisi after this film) who plays Father Marshall who appears at about the half-way point through the film and is notable for his two lengthy scenes where he gives lectures to the children and Brothers; the first one is his introduction, showing himself to be a kind, warm, trustworthy, and slightly humorous fellow, but the second one is when he gives a nightmarish account of hell and vehemently and viciously prods this idea of sin and punishment into the susceptible minds of the children (more aggressively and effectively than all the Brothers combined).

But the seminary’s strict rules of repression seem to only embellish the sexuality of the kids (instigating homosexuality in this all-boys environment) and even in the Brothers, who feel strong temptations when they are away from the somewhat isolated sanctuary of the seminary. It’s surprising to see how upfront the film is with its depiction of budding sexuality in these prepubescent kids. One scene of Tom and a friend discreetly jerking each other off is somewhat shocking to see, but is permeated by an immature awkwardness (not to mention is very darkly lit and obscured by some twisted tree branches). There’s no overt mention of homosexuality in the film, though one scene of Tom and his class-mate simply speaking to each other seems to highlight something of a flirtation, as close-ups of their squirming and fidgeting hands and feet are intercut during this giddy conversation about pubic hair.

The Devils Playground

Most filmmaking newcomers nowadays can only dream of making a debut film this sharply excellent. Not only is it handsomely filmed and smartly directed, on top of featuring so many damn good actors, but to present such a multifaceted view on the Catholic religion and identifying what may be right and what may be wrong with its codes is courageous for a young filmmaker. The Devil’s Playground, amongst all its greatness, can also be seen as an extraordinary coming of age movie, showing the determination that grows out of stress in this boy until he uses these traits to liberate himself from his repressions.

The script was written by Schepisi and then took several years to raise the financing for production (over a third of the $306,000 budget came from him). The seminary was shot at the Werribee Park Mansion, which had indeed been the Corpus Christi Catholic College seminary for 50 years, but closed down just two years prior to filming (Schepisi says on the commentary it’s now a zoo and convention centre).

The wonderfully understated and opening titles were created by Alex Stiltz, backed by the wonderful Bruce Smeaton score whose immaculate and appropriately flowery style is reminiscent of some of John Williams’ great early scores of around the same time of this film’s release.

Schepisi says on the commentary that some shots were based on either French impressionist painter Claude Monet or French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau, and you certainly get a sense of the former in pristine outdoor shots (such as the peculiarly framed and slightly distorted shot of Tom picnicking with his family), and a sense of the latter in some of the more rigidly filmed and deliberately lit shots. Schepisi sure isn’t overglorifying the wonderful cinematography by Ian Baker who always shoots in the appropriate tone.

Once the film was finished, Schepisi continued with the low-budget spirit – since he was unable to find distribution, he had to spend even more money renting our cinemas to play the film. In hindsight, it seemed like it was all very much worth it, and not just because the film eventually made its money back. Although the film wasn’t much of a commercial success, it must’ve struck a nerve with many people. In The Last New Wave by David Stratton, Schepisi talks of the numerous phone calls and letters he received from people who had a very similar experience to him when they were growing up. On the commentary, he even claims the film broke records at a cinema in East End New York that was frequented by a gay community.

Schepisi proved with his first film (as well as his second) that he was capable of tackling subject matter that had hardly been discussed in films before, let alone Australian films. His films don’t seem to take a side, but present multiple viewpoints from various different angles, letting the troubling subject matter present itself for the audience to come to their own conclusions. There’s much in The Devil’s Playground to both condone and condemn the practises of this religion, and it all goes to show how complex life can be, even for a prepubescent young boy.

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