January 27, 2020  (Web Review)

The Devil’s Playground

Artsploitation (avail. from www.amazon.com), 99 min., not rated, DVD: $9.99

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

Australian filmmaker Fred Schepisi made his directing debut with this semi-autobiographical 1976 coming-of-age drama. The setting is a Catholic seminary in 1953 and the central character is Tom Allen (played by Simon Burke, a remarkable child actor), who finds himself in a state of confusion as he undergoes puberty while beginning his studies for a future in the priesthood. His doubts about his vocation and his apprehension over his emotional and physical changes take place within a student body that is also having a difficult time balancing their faith and their hormones. Tom’s confession of his increasingly chronic masturbating is treated as a joke—other boys hear his conversation in the confessional with a priest—and there is an episode with a group of boys who gain sexual release by flagellating each other. But for the most part, Schepisi offers a humane consideration of the difficulties imposed on both the students and the priests who are tasked as their mentors and teachers. Indeed, two of the priests have their own difficulties with celibacy—one boldly approaches a group of women in a pub and another enjoys gawking at the scantily-clad ladies at a public swimming pool—and their dilemmas are framed with a sincerity and maturity that would become the tenets of Schepisi’s subsequent film work. Extras include audio commentary by Schepisi, an interview with Schepisi, and a cast and crew featurette. Highly recommended (P. Hall)