Artsploitation: The Devil's Playground (1976) - Reviewed

Artsploitation generally releases newer films from all over the world, usually of a more transgressive or provocative bent that generally pushes the envelope of modern cinema.  While most labels treading a fine line between art and exploitation generally look to the past, Artsploitation prides itself on looking ahead to the future of exploitative yet artistic filmmaking.  For them to release a renowned classic film from the 1970s by a great director still active in the film business is unheard of for them but here we are.  

The film in question is Roxanne and I.Q. director Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground, a semi-autobiographical ensemble piece about youths being educated in a 1950s Australian all-male seminary, specifically zeroing in on a thirteen year old boy conflicted between his Catholic upbringing and his burgeoning prepubescent sexual curiosity.  Written, produced and directed by Schepisi, The Devil’s Playground represents a daring and confident debut that would signify the emergence of a major cinematic talent and an important chapter in the Australian New Wave of cinema whose power to enthrall and disturb hasn’t eroded with age.

From the outset and given documentary films like Deliver Us from Evil concerning sexual abuse in the clergy, one gets the sense The Devil’s Playground will be that sort of picture that pushes into uncomfortable territory. While it does have a thread of unease running through the thing, it’s important to consider the time it was made and the writer-director’s own experiences working in a seminary before becoming a filmmaker.  Schepisi himself didn’t suffer any abuses but decided the clergy wasn’t for him. 

Instead his film avoids showcasing abuses and focuses on the life of Tom (Simon Burke) who struggles with his on puberty and internal war between denying/indulging his sexual yearnings he himself doesn’t understand.  Intercut with the story of the schoolboys in the Catholic education and Tom’s personal conflict is that of the Brothers instructing the youths, many of whom are torn about their vows of celibacy and what their lives might have been had they strayed from the cloth.

Watching Schepisi’s film was an enlightening experience which managed to examine with subtlety and nuance the conflict between the Cloister and the flesh, abstinence and sin and their ramifications on the so called notions of good versus evil.  Largely driven by dialogue and episodic sequences chronicling the day-to-day trivialities of the Catholic school grounds as well the nightly debates among the Brothers with boozing, playing pool and piano, it’s a slice of life film about what it means to experience changes from childhood to adulthood under the veil of a moral and spiritual compass.  Moreover, it tries to examine how such a complicated dichotomy between impure thoughts and self-repression of such can become destructive, even deadly.

That Schepisi would go on to direct romantic comedies including but not limited to Roxanne, L.A. Story and I.Q. after starting out with such a sharp and incisive semi-autobiography is kind of astonishing.  You would never know this was from the same man without knowing his name and where his career would develop.  But aside from the still disturbing thoughts being portrayed and examined onscreen, including a particularly provocative moment with a sexually repressed priest fantasizing about swimming underwater with naked women, The Devil’s Playground largely expresses its ideas through conversation among the priests and students.

The film is a handsomely shot effort thanks to cinematographer Ian Baker who photographs the seminary with grace and subtlety and Bruce Smeaton’s understated score adds an additional layer of confused unease signifying the thirteen year old protagonist’s changing feelings about himself and the world around him.  It’s also exceptionally well-acted, boasting a myriad of strong performances from the youthful cast as well as that of the priests, particularly Arthur Dignam as the self-loathing ogler who may or may not harbor pedophilic feelings towards the student body.  The film’s lead played by Simon Burke took home a Best Actor Australian Academy Award and it remains an indelible example of fine child acting in the cinematic landscape.

Still a significant addition to the Australian New Wave which sits nicely alongside the likes of Wake in Fright, Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Devil’s Playground is an important contemporary film which is less about the conundrum of repressing base inclinations than it is about what it means to come to terms with them and still lead a good, normal life.  Like the priests, the film’s protagonist Tom is fraught with anxiety and frustration between the Catholic teachings and the ongoing changes within himself as he matures from preteen to young adult.  It speaks to an ongoing internal conflict every person experiences and how easy it is for those thoughts and feelings to set us on the right or wrong paths in life.

- Andrew Kotwicki