November 23, 2011

Queer Review: The Devil's Playground (1976)

The Devil's Playground
Director: Fred Schepisi
Writer: Fred Schepisi
Cast: Arthur Dignam, Nick Tate, Simon Burke, Charles McCallum, Thomas Keneally, John Diedrich

Fred Schepisi's film is a slow moving and moody coming of age story about the repressed students and priests at a Catholic boarding school in Austrialia. Nicely shot and entirely evocative, The Devil's Playground raises questions regarding the necessity of self control and the consequences of living in a society so strict, even something as innocent as masturbation is forbidden.

Set in the closeted confines of a Catholic Seminary, The Devil's Playground tells the story of a young Tom Allen (Simon Burke) who must struggle with his burgeoning sexual desires. However, there is a great deal of contention amongst the the Brothers in charge of the seminary as they debate their merits of the strict rules everyone must follow. Meanwhile, a secret society has been formed by a small number of students that engages in sadomasochism. They try to recruit to Tom, but he rebuffs their advances.

The Queering
The Devil's Playground develops slowly and at first it is not clear who the main characters are. However, like any well constructed mosaic, the plot slowly comes into focus as it progresses and the whole picture can be seen. While the slow pacing might cause boredom amongst easily distracted viewers, Director Schepisi manages to find the right tone and to keep things focused on what is really important. However, this makes watching The Devil's Playground into something of an intellectual exercise. Personally, I found myself caring for the characters in only the most superficial manor.

From a technical perspective, it's worth noting that there is no flashy cinematography or quick editing to provide distraction. A few short scenes are shot entirely in take and more then a few memorably shot and edited sequences, such as when Tom kisses a girl for the first time while lying on his back looking up at the trees around him. All of this serves to enhance the contemplative mood that Schepisi was certainly aiming for.

Acting wise, the performances are strong across the board. As Tom, Simon Burke manages to find some subtle ways to convey repressed tension - while watching, pay attention to his hands during several key scenes when the camera focuses on them. Nick Tate, as a kind priest who finds himself tempted by the freedom of life outside the seminary, is also strong.

On the whole, The Devil's Playground is a well told story with a strong sense of style that doesn't resort to cheap gimmicks or sudden plot twists to keep it moving forward. While the story may be focused on human sexuality, there is only enough nudity as is absolutely necessary. Most of the naked flesh occurs during one sequence on a day break outside the seminary changes in a public locker-room and finds himself both uncomfortable and titillated with the blatant nudity of the men around him and with the flashes of female flesh he witnesses once in the pool.

Recommended, there may not be a whole lot of fun to be had while playing in The Devil's Playground but the experience will not be forgotten.

The Rating

(Sorry about the gory opening, but this was the only trailer I could find)

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