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  Devil's Playground, The Everybody's Doing It
Year: 1976
Director: Fred Schepisi
Stars: Charles McCallum, John Frawley, Arthur Dignam, Nick Tate, Peter Cox, Jonathan Hardy, Gerry Duggan, Thomas Keneally, Sheila Florance, Simon Burke, John Diedrich, Alan Cinis, Richard Morgan, Rowan Currie, Gary Pixton, Michael David, Warren Coleman
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Tom Allen (Simon Burke) is a thirteen-year-old boy attending a Catholic school for boys in training for the priesthood in rural Australia, during the early half of 1953. The establishment takes its teachings very seriously, this is in the eyes of the Great God Almighty after all, but not only do the pupils fall short of the high bar of expectations of them, but the tutors do as well. When they are not studying, they can swim in the nearby pond, but it's getting a little cold for that now Tom has decided to apply himself to - well, not really his studies, but stopping himself from wetting the bed every night, a habit he has developed at the school and one he would dearly wish he could leave behind...

Come to think of it, leaving the school behind would not be such a bad thing either, in this, the debut from Australian director Fred Schepisi, like other filmmakers' debuts, a coming of age tale that was more than a little autobiographical. Like Tom, he had trained for the priesthood and obviously given it up when he found it did not agree with him; perhaps for that reason he took an essentially humane view of the characters here, feeling as if he understood their plights of spiritual verses bodily conflict. Make no mistake, this was a film about masturbation and whether you give in to your urges or take the path of self-denial, a topic that endeared it to teenage audiences.

Although it does not show up on television so often now, there was a time that this was a shining example of what Australian cinema could do. It was a hit in its homeland, and won a clutch of awards there, part of their New Wave of the nineteen-seventies that made waves across the globe, though its lasting legacy may not be the more tasteful exponents of their equivalent of heritage film and more what was latterly termed Ozploitation, which The Devil's Playground was not. On the other hand, its frank depiction of sexual pressures was something that seemed natural to the earthiness this country's movies tended towards, another reason it gained attention abroad.

Therefore amidst the nostalgic cinematography and general good humour, there was nudity, both male and female, and a yearning to obsess over the sexual elements of life, like someone who keeps changing the course of the conversation you were having towards the racy. Of course, what young Tom needs is not the love of Mrs Palm and her five lovely daughters, he needs romance, and he almost secures it as well until the Brothers cruelly snatch it away from him when they find he is writing letters to a girl he met: this is beyond the pale, and hints at a real anger Schepisi might have done better to emphasise consistently. He only does so intermittently, for instance when erstwhile writer Thomas Keneally appeared as a jovial monk who then gives a fire and brimstone sermon on Hell out of the blue, Schepisi seemingly saying, hey, these "innocent" kids didn't need to hear that.

Yet it was Arthur Dignam as one of the Brothers who encapsulated the misery of the service to God that the Church demanded. All the males in this were struggling with their sexuality, not because they were gay, though the occasional character was, but absurdly they were struggling with their heterosexuality. We see a couple of the tutors (one Nick Tate of Space: 1999) almost give into temptation with two ladies they meet in a bar (these priests do drink!), but that is treated as a joke, however Dignam's plight was a lot graver, and after a tragedy at the pond he offers a speech of such irate desolation about how no man can resist the desires of their body, no matter how religious they try to be, that Schepisi's message becomes clear. A shade too clear, as it overbalances the whimsy into outright rage, leaving a confused impression where you are not sure how much was meant to be funny. But if this was saying anything that had gone through the minds of everyone who has ever succumbed to onanism, the very act of stating it made for a striking entertainment - most of the time. Music by Bruce Smeaton.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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