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Sunday, January 5, 2014

THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND (1976)

This beautifully observed, semi-autobiographic debut from Australian writer/director Fred Schepisi promised a major career that never quite materialized. All the more reason to rediscover this coming-of-age tale about a teen who’s being fast-tracked into the priesthood at a strict Catholic seminary. The nearly cloistered, nearly all-male world, only intensifies the normal pent-up physical & psychological stresses of the school’s pubescent boys, and that figure is only ‘squared’ for the Brothers on staff. As Schepisi has it, the sexual longings recalled from 1953 are largely heterosexual, a relief from today’s news headlines, though you do wonder what dicey elements may have been held back. What really matters is the quality of memory and Schepisi’s skill in getting it all on screen. The cast, a mix of pros & newbies, is everything you could ask for; even more surprising is the level of visual control in the shots and in Ian Baker’s truly exceptional cinematography. Occasionally, the look goes off period and a few times Schepisi’s script betrays a novice dramatist’s hand, speechifying too bluntly about the emotional costs of restraint & repression by the men. (Schepisi seems determined to let you know who is and who isn’t masturbating, along with the respective levels of guilt.) But most of the film still plays true, if never quite up to the level of boyhood classics like KES/’69 or THE 400 BLOWS/’59.* Then again, as noted, Schepisi never did become a Truffaut (who does?) or even a Loach.

DOUBLE-BILL: *As mentioned, but since you’ve probably seen 400 BLOWS, give KES a spin. Just don’t forget to turn on the subtitles, those Northern British accents are fierce.

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