The Movie Waffler DVD Review - THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND (1976) | The Movie Waffler

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DVD Review - THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND (1976)

the devil's playground review
The staff and pupils at a Catholic juniorate seminary struggle to suppress their sexual urges.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Fred Schepisi

Starring: Simon Burke, Charles McCallum, John Frawley, Arthur Dignam, Nick Tate

the devil's playground dvd


Much like Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, Australian filmmaker Fred Schepisi once envisioned for himself a life behind a pulpit rather than a camera. As a 13-year-old, Schepisi attended a Catholic juniorate seminary with an eye to entering the priesthood. The experience ultimately convinced Schepisi that he wasn't cut out for the cloth and the Church's loss was cinema's gain. It wasn't a wasted experience however, as Schepisi's seminary struggles provided the basis for his 1976 debut The Devil's Playground.

With such a title, you might expect The Devil's Playground to focus on the subject of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church (as does its 2014 TV followup, made with Schepisi's blessing but not his involvement), but having experienced no such abuse himself, and with such scandals still kept out of the media spotlight in the '70s, Schepisi's film instead focusses on what may be the root cause of such abuse. The Devil's Playground explores the psychological ramifications of what happens to men and boys when they are forced to deny their physical urges. As a priest tells a young boy early on, "If you’re to be a little brother of Mary you must learn that your body is your worst enemy."

the devil's playground review


Schepisi divides his film between the Brothers who staff the seminary and the pupils in their charge, focussing chiefly on 13-year-old Tom Allen (Simon Burke), who one assumes is the film's stand-in for the young Schepisi. Far from the rebellious protagonist you might expect of such a story, Tom is committed to trying his best to make the most of the theological opportunities presented by the seminary. He spends more time in chapel than the other boys and volunteers for an array of odd jobs around the institute. But when puberty hits, he struggles with the new urges his body is now presenting him. When a kiss from a local girl on a weekend at home gives him more joy than any of the teachings of Christ ever could, Tom is forced to decide which path he should take.

The representation of the Brothers suggests that to a man, they've all taken the wrong path. At night, when the boys have been put to bed, the Brothers get drunk on beer and whiskey and debate the wisdom of their teachings, in particular the Church's doctrine on matters of a sexual nature.

Had Brother Victor (Nick Tate) not become a Brother, he would no doubt be a ladies' man, as evidenced by a trip to a local pub where he is presented with the tempting offer of a threesome with a pair of good-time girls. "That was a bloody close call," he confesses to a travelling companion after fleeing the women's clutches.

Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam) tortures himself even further by declining to engage in conversation with the opposite sex, instead ogling them from afar. During a trip to a public swimming pool, Francine is driven mad by the sight of so much exposed female flesh. Retreating to a bathroom stall, he clutches a towel in frustration and bawls his eyes out in frustration.

The older Brother Sebastian (Charles McCallum) has long made peace with his choice, but imparts advice against following his path to Tom. "You have a smile that should be seen around the world," he tells the boy, vicariously projecting his own lost youth on the young man.

the devil's playground review


Given how rarely we now see Catholic Priests portrayed with such psychological and emotional nuance in these post-scandal times, The Devil's Playground stands as an important reminder that the crimes of the Church may have been wide-reaching but were committed and covered up by a minority of Priests. I'm not a Christian, but some of the finest and most intelligent men I've encountered in my life were the Christian Brothers whose school I attended as a teenager. I often felt that most of them had nary a spiritual bone in their bodies, but had entered the Church as it offered a way to live the life of a man of letters in relative comfort. For the few that appeared to be suppressing homosexual inclinations, it was perhaps a way to retreat from an unkind society. The behind closed doors conversations of Schepisi's film are presented just as I often imagined the after-class discussions between the Christian Brothers charged with my education might have played out; dialogues between men who were imprisoned within the boundaries of a philosophy they didn't fully agree with, but were nevertheless ill-suited to life outside the protective walls of the Church.

The Devil's Playground is a defining movie of the Australian New Wave, but it's rarely mentioned outside its native land, where it was lauded with a host of victories at the 1976 Australian Film Institute Award (the "Auscors"?). Burke picked up a Best Actor award for a striking acting debut that now stands as one of the all-time great child performances. The young man has a naturalism that suggests much improvisation on his part, and in some scenes it appears as though his boyish reactions have been left in the film by Schepisi where other filmmakers may have cut them out, like his uncontrollable fit of the giggles when Tom is given a decidedly awkward lecture on puberty by an elderly Brother. Burke's Tom is a performance as pivotal to the Aussie New Wave as Jean-Pierre Léaud' young Antoine Doinel is to the movement's earlier French counterpart.

the devil's playground review


A recurring theme in Australian films of this era is the idea that men and women (particularly white men and women) don't belong in Australia's rugged landscape, where they inevitably run into trouble - see Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock and Colin Eggleston's Long Weekend for examples. Shunning this notion, Schepisi instead presents Australia's great outdoors as a place of reprieve from the stuffy confines of the seminary. Cinematographer Ian Baker shoots Melbourne's Werribee Park as an idyllic landscape where Tom can run free, chasing or chased by his young female temptress, free of man's silly rules. The lush presentation of the outdoor scenes may fool you into thinking you're watching what will be revealed as dream sequences, such is the contrast with the seminary, whose interiors are lit either harshly or dimly, and where Tom is constantly surrounded by a suffocating army of male bodies.

Like most of his Aussie New Wave counterparts, Schepisi was soon lured to Hollywood, where he was inevitably denied the opportunity to indulge in filmmaking as intelligent, raw and nuanced as his Australian films. The Devil's Playground is one of the standout works from a time when Australia's film industry was producing films as fresh and vital in their perspectives as those of New American Cinema. Given the Catholic Church's aversion to change, it's lost none of its impact over the decades.

The Devil's Playground is on DVD now from Artsploitation Films.




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