A pointed examination of both the nurturing capabilities and detrimental effects of Catholicism, Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground (1974) was shot in Geelong for just $300,000 and effectively drew upon experiences derived from his own brief flirtation with a godly vocation, spending nearly two years inside a seminary in his mid-teens.
Set in 1953, a trio of central characters become the subject of focus: firstly, young student Tom (Simon Burke), a chronic bed wetter who’s being gradually distracted from his religious devotions; he becomes representative of all the boys and their increasingly common lapses, innocence on the cusp of corruption from the wider world. Tom’s own weakness finds a physical outlet in his constant masturbation, a topic often humorously referenced by the boys whose close proximity to puberty draws stern-faced, dire warnings from the Brothers, who in turn seem oblivious to the silly smirks their grave lectures inspire.
Much loved Brother Victor (Nick Tate) is well aware of the restrictive code that dominates his Catholic duty but in Tom and the other boys he sees a means of gently guiding still-impressionable youths beyond the constrictive boundaries of this place by treating them with almost fatherly devotion. A reckless drinker when off his leash and devoid of any social skills around women, Victor can’t imagine life anywhere else for himself. On a basic level – call it devotion or loneliness – he clings to his faith with all its inherent beliefs of fostering a community spirit within an educational context.
As with any film worth its salt dealing with Catholic faith, the all-encompassing force of guilt is evoked. Yes indeed, as sure as the day is long, Catholic guilt will endure, and Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam) is a provocative symbol of the deep-seated conflict the notion inspires, a model of starkest repression. He’s also Brother Victor’s polar opposite. A formal, harsh taskmaster who never allows himself to get close to the boys – earning their derision at every turn – Francine espouses the laws of God with the calamitous promise of damnation to follow for non-conformists. For him, the Lord’s chosen few are those who regard stringent denial a prerequisite for passing the ultimate theological test; he hovers over them proclaiming “an undisciplined mind is the Devil’s playground.”
On a subliminal level however, Francine suffers at the hands of primitive forces pulling him in the opposite direction. Whilst Victor and another young brother head into town for a football match, Francine visits the public baths where he can’t prevent his eyes from straying, catching unavoidable half-glimpses of female flesh; a form of torturous temptation, they’re enough to send him into paroxysms of guilt, soon manifesting themselves in disturbing dreams of his naked body being ravaged in deep waters by a surreal, swirling mobile of elegant, rapturous nymphs.
A fundamental issue for Schepisi is the division between old school and more contemporary – for 1950’s Australia – methods of Catholic indoctrination. On opposing sides sit Victor and Francine, drawn into direct conflict when a tragedy at the seminary finally causes resentments to boil over. Bemoaning an almost medieval adherence to enforcing rules upon the innocent boys, Victor rails against the increasingly dispirited Francine whose final outburst – a result of his morbid inner conflict – is one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
It all becomes too much for Francine, his reluctant body’s unwholesome obsessions slowly overwhelming his spiritual devotions. On the verge of leaving the order, his final declaration is a telling insight into the price paid for his denials: “I hate life” he assures the assembled brothers, “I hate it!”
A visiting missionary priest, Father Marshall (a flawed and overly mannered Tom Keneally) further illustrates the conflicting perceptions attributable to the church; a generally benign and well-liked figure, his homilies turn into fire and brimstone rants, warning of the temptations of evil and ways of being reduced to one of the “howling damned who do not see God’s face.”
On one hand a sombre and sensitive coming-of-age story, The Devil’s Playground is also an unsettling examination of Catholicism, probing its lack of relevance in advancing with the times and moulding the minds of each new generation. Regardless of the decades that separate it from the here and now, Schepisi’s film is as relevant as ever in its assurances of religion’s weakness, that inevitable annulment of rhapsodic but anachronistic eulogizing, bound to turn away as many as it converts.
Though his screenplay is second to none, there’s no doubt Schepisi’s greatly helped by the quality of his actors, particularly the brilliant Tate and Dignam as the two Brothers with geometrically opposed views of how their religious ideals should be imparted to the flock. Young Burke, under the patient and tender tutelage of his director, gives a very convincing debut performance for the most part.
Long acclaimed – and rightfully so – as an Australian classic, The Devil’s Playground is ample proof of its director’s prodigious early talent, whose promise would be further realised with an adaptation of Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith two years later.