Film Review -The Devil’s Playground (1976)

The Devil’s Playground is the semi-autobiographical and at times controversial film debut from writer/director Fred Schepisi. The story follows Tom Allen (Simon Burke), a young boy on the edge of becoming a teenager in 1950’s Australia under the rule of the strict brotherhood of the Catholic seminary in which he attends. The trouble is though, Tom’s hormones are beginning to bubble under the surface and the film shows how Tom tries to navigate his way through his first step into more adult territory, where his feelings for girls and the restrictive teachings of the Catholic church start to contradict each other. However, little does Tom know, but the brothers that he looks up to for guidance and to learn about a more divine way of living are just as susceptible to pleasures of the flesh as he is himself.

One of Australia’s most treasured cinematic achievements, The Devil’s Playground talks openly about a side of the Catholic church that was not often questioned at the time, bringing up discussions of whether there are some rules that may do more harm than good. The intimate portrait of Tom’s life and his school friends don’t come down with a heavy hand, instead the thoughts, feelings and actions of the school boys and their teachers feel like a natural outburst of something that most definitely shouldn’t be suppressed.

The film also offers a glimpse into the lives of the teachers and gives them a voice to openly question the behaviours that their own religion encourages, questions that their students would never raise in fear of punishment or the wrath of God. The aim of the film is not to attack the Catholic church but to have an open and honest discussion about the morality of forcing its followers to hide their own natural urges. However, it does so without resorting to shock value, neither does it give the film an exploitative edge to show the audience a more salacious side of the church. Instead, The Devil’s Playground leaves its audience thoughtfully and is as relevant now as it was when it was first released over 40 years ago.

The cast are remarkable and show a balanced side to life that through the eyes of a child, could have painted all adults as evil, corrupt and immoral. Burke does a great job as the young Tom, a character just as relatable to any young man living anywhere in the world. His story is full of things that I’m sure most boys go through at school and Burke makes the audience believe in him and smile knowingly as they remember from their own childhood. Nick Tate plays Brother Victor as the likeable, cool teacher in the seminary and is able to show a more human side to the Catholic church, even while dealing with his own sexual urges that he knows he must not act upon. Also, Arthur Dignam’s Brother Francine is an interesting character who has hidden urges that plague his dreams and ultimately questions the right to freedom of sexual expression more than any other character.

Overall, The Devil’s Playground is a unique and eye-opening portrayal of life as a schoolboy under the Catholic church’s teachings that is thought provoking, charming and will make audiences think long after an initial viewing. The film never judges, letting the audience decide on whether there are any long-term effects on the Catholic church’s teachings. Because as the saying goes, it takes a community to raise a child.

Joel Fisher

Drama | Australia, 1976 | DVD, VOD (USA) | Artsploitation Films | Dir.Fred Schepisi | Charles McCallum, John Frawley, Arthur Dignam, Nick Tate