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Fred Schepisi's film, 'The Devil's Playground' is an intimate portrait of Tom, a thirteen-year-old struggling in spirit and body with the constraints of living in a Catholic seminary. It is also the story of the Brothers and how they cope with the demands of their faith. Written by
A Timeless Classic Becomes Especially Relevant Today
Fred Schepisi's semi-autobiographical "memoir" of life in an Australian Catholic seminary for boys and young men supposedly takes place in the 50's but was shot in the 70's and looks it. The stylistic tropes of the film are as distinctive as Disco, but the portrayal of all of the people who inhabit the pastel tableaux is lifelike and sympathetic. Anyone who has listened to old 78's of the great voices of long ago has undergone a similar process of adjusting one's senses to the medium and finding the performer very much alive under the "static".
This movie was shown to a group of clinical psychologists and psychiatrists who are also serious students of film. Their reaction was unanimously favorable. There's no difficult symbolism here. It's all right there for us to see, enjoy, and understand.
I think that Schepisi has tried to present life in such an institution as it really is. Not being Catholic myself, I suppose it's easy for me to agree with the author's obvious criticism of the astonishingly prudish standards set for both students and faculty. Maybe I'm a little dim, but I'm still trying to figure out how these fellows could get their "bottoms" clean when they have to wear bathing trunks in the shower!!
I may also be showing my ignorance when I say that the emphasis on sex seems realistic. Maybe men and boys who have to refrain from every expression of sexuality don't find themselves just as focused on sex as people who can do as they please. Maybe. On the other hand, my experience with the male species is that we're a horny lot who are NOT the "masters of their domains".
As the old humorist Alexander King observed when he was asked what he thought of a new organization that wanted to put an end to the nudity of domestic pets (by dressing them in specially designed pants), "There are people who are so repressed that they see something obscene in the crotch of every tree."
In spite of the seemingly serious subject matter in the film, with much moral gnashing of teeth evident, there are many funny moments, which come across as gentle and true to life. Anyone hoping to see "Seminarians Gone Wild" is in for a disappointment. There's not a hint of burlesque to be found, and when one of the guys is doing something a little naughty we feel like saying "Hey Buddy, don't sweat it." One of the old brothers or priests takes that view, and his way of talking about it is delightful.
But if the movie showed only the hairy-palm issue it wouldn't be the ageless classic that it really is. This is a typically "British" (in this case Australian) movie about civilized men living in a closed society. The boys boarding school, the regiment housed in its Scottish garrison, the sailing ship on a long and terrible voyage, the class of schoolboys marooned on an uninhabited island--all have become settings for intense dramas that emphasize both the beauty and the pressures of highly developed codes of conduct. Take a look at TUNES OF GLORY, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, LORD OF THE FLIES, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.
Lastly, the great thing about films with really long "legs" is that everyday life keeps recycling issues, so when it comes time to study the "latest" disaster, we can look backward into the vaults to see what has already been created that might pertinent. The Church sex-scandals have definitely made this movie required viewing. The fact that it doesn't touch directly on the subject of pedophilic practices among some clergy will spur some discussion, as it did with the group to whom I showed it.
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