My Father, 104 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas on 31
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
(This is my review as published
in the June 2007 issue of The New South Wales Law Society
What is the quintessential ‘Australian’ film? Is it Crocodile
Dundee (1986) or Sunday Too Far Away (1975)
– or even Kenny (2006)? Or is it more
highbrow, like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
(2001)? And what about these film that make them
Australian? The film industry tells us that a nation must be able to
tell its own stories on film. But what sort of stories are ‘our’
stories, and how do they reflect the true nature of Australia?
All these questions occurred to me as I watched Romulus,
My Father, a stunningly beautiful new Australian film
based on the memoir of the same name by Raimond Gaita. Gaita was born
in 1946 in Germany. He is now Professor of Moral Philosophy at King’s
College University of London, and Professor of Philosophy at the
Australian Catholic University.
Gaita movingly describes a relationship between father and son, and the
bond between them that somehow makes it possible to live through long
periods of confusion, pain and sorrow. Raimond (young Kodi Smit-McPhee,
who is superb) and Romulus (Eric Bana, also wonderful) live in rural
Victoria during the 1960s. They are mostly without Raimond’s mother,
Christina, a beautiful but troubled young woman (Run Lola
Run’s Franka Potente). Christina feels unable to live
with her husband and young son, but visits occasionally, staying until
she can stand it no longer. Then she returns to city life.
Romulus is a Romanian who came to Australia with his wife and young
son. He makes a living as a blacksmith and farm labourer, but he’s a
resourceful man who can turn his hand to anything if necessary. Still,
life is hard, and it is made harder by the unexpected arrivals and
departures of Christina. She’s an unconventional woman, but both
Raimond and Romulus love her so much that they forgive her, putting up
with her shocking behaviour – which includes brazenly conducting an
affair with Mitru, Romulus’ close friend (Russel Dykstra), and even
having a child with him.
All this is seen through the eyes of young Raimond, who cannot
understand why Christina and Mitru cannot come to live with his father
and him. Christina’s increasingly reckless behaviour is driven by
violent mood swings from joy to deep depression, and her mental illness
will eventually cause terrible tragedy. But Romulus is Raimond’s rock,
and their love sustains them both – until the dreadful time when
Romulus finally cracks.
The film is full of staggeringly beautiful – and sometimes terrible –
images. There’s a scene in which Raimond sits on a roof all day,
waiting. The scene does not change, but the lighting does, 3 times,
from day to dusk to starlight. It is simply exquisite. The director of
photography is Geoffrey Simpson, who also filmed Scott Hick’s Shine (1996)
and Gillian Armstrong’s Oscar & Lucinda (1997).
He has a great feel for rural Victoria. The wheat fields literally
glow. The most terrible image is one that comes at the end of a
sequence in which Romulus and his friend go into the egg business. The
chickens get sick and have to be destroyed and buried. A single wing
remains above ground. It’s an image that will stay with you.
Along with all this angst, struggle, and beauty come snippets of
philosophy. Romulus and his friends read the philosophers and quote
Bertrand Russell: ‘The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time,’ and
Marcus Aurelius: ‘The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts
make it.’ Raimond takes all this in and it sustains him, later, when he
must make his way alone.
I can think of only a handful of Australian films that focus on the
migrant experience. They’re a Weird
Mob did it in 1966 using comedy. Love’s
Brother (2004) slid into cliché and so had
nothing new to say. La Spagnola (2001) was
confused and over-exaggerated for laughs. Better was Little
Fish (2004). Its setting in Cabramatta (Sydney’s Little
Saigon) is more than just background – it almost becomes a character in
Romulus, My Father tells a story that is not told often
enough. It is not a perfect film, but it is a worthy piece to add to
the vast jigsaw puzzle of the Australian story. It has been made with
great care. First time feature director, the actor and theatre director
Richard Roxburgh can take another bow.