Notes on “The Devil’s Playground”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:Though it’s little known even among aficionados, I’d rank Fred Schepisi’s 1976 “The Devil’s Playground” among the great directorial debuts. Few films are so achingly corporeal. Schepisi, who also wrote the picture, keeps us tuned in to flesh, bodily needs, fluids — and yet it’s never crass or vulgar. There’s a profound sympathy for the movie’s young men, trainees for the priesthood, and the Catholic brothers who are their teachers and models. The latter are more adapted versions of their wards, so accustomed to sensual deprivation that circumventing Catholic restriction has become second nature (they freely acknowledge how this has distorted them). Though the movie focuses on one boy, Tom Allen, a serial bed wetter, it has a decentralized feel, and Schepisi’s attention to marginal details gives it the texture of a documentary; it often made me think of the work of Frederick Wiseman. Visually, it’s muted and melancholy; even the grandiose images, like a brother’s revery of swimming nudes — a weightless tangle redolent of the paintings of Luis Ricardo Falero — seem hazed over, as though they’re registering in a rarely used corner of your mind. “The Devil’s Playground” can be taken as a critique of Catholicism, but it’s too sympathetic a work to read as condemnatory; Schepisi is using the Catholic milieu to amplify and examine, in a highly personal way (the movie is largely autobiographical), a universal theme: our often fraught relationship with our bodies.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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