Devil’s Playground, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Mar 16, 2022
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Devil’s Playground, The (Blu-ray Review)

Director

Fred Schepisi

Release Date(s)

1976 (December 8, 2021)

Studio(s)

The Film House (Umbrella Entertainment – Sunburnt Screens #14)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: B-
  • Audio Grade: B-
  • Extras Grade: B

Review

[Editor’s Note: This is a REGION-FREE Blu-ray release.]

The Devil’s Playground was the auspicious debut feature from filmmaker Fred Schepisi, who raised $300,000 independently to bring this very personal story to the screen in 1975. Inspired by his own experiences becoming disillusioned while attending a Catholic seminary as an adolescent boy, The Devil’s Playground is set in 1953 and follows both the students and the faculty at a Catholic school as their own natural desires come into inevitable conflict with the strictures of religious dogma. Tom Allen (Simon Burke) is a young boy trying to navigate through the repressive system, while teachers like Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam) and Brother Victor (Nick Tate) struggle with internal conflicts of their own. For example, while Brother Francine tells the students that “You must learn that your body is your enemy,” he still hasn’t been able to defeat his own.

The way that The Devil’s Playground follows the parallel stories of the children and the adults is one of its most striking features. It shows how the clash with the sexual repression inherent in many strict religious systems isn’t something that ends once children have successfully navigated puberty. If anything, since the teachers are products of the exact same environment, it demonstrates the abject failures of using dogma to combat natural passions. Tom Allen dreams of escaping the system, just like Schepisi did, but for most of the students at the school, if they successfully navigate their schooling and become priests as well, they’re going to have to continue their struggles for the rest of their lives.

The Devil’s Playground was a seminal film in the Australian New Wave, and it swept the Australian Film Institute awards that year, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Cinematography. Simon Burke and Nick Tate actually tied for Best Actor in a Lead Role. Burke would later reprise his role of Tom Allen in a 2014 miniseries that served as a sort of a sequel, and Schepisi of course made the leap to Hollywood with films like Iceman, The Russia House, I.Q., and Roxanne. Yet The Devil’s Playground remains one of his finest works, even if it’s one that hasn’t gotten enough attention outside of his home country.

Cinematographer Ian Baker shot The Devil's Playground on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release (reframed slightly at 1.78:1 here). There’s no information regarding the master that Umbrella has used for this Blu-ray version, but it’s likely the same one that they used for their previous DVD release, and it shows signs of its age. Detail and sharpness levels vary quite a bit, with some shots so soft that they look like upscaled standard definition, while others fare somewhat better. The softness doesn’t appear to be inherent to the cinematography—Baker has said that he rarely used any kind of diffusion filters or gauzes throughout his career, so it’s not a case where he deliberately created a gauzy look for the film. Part of the issue may be the encode, as it struggles to keep up with anything in motion. Textures like the costuming tend to be clearer when static, but smear when they’re moving. It’s worth noting that these issues will be less noticeable on smaller flat panels, but it’s not a transfer that holds up very well when projected.

Audio is offered in English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. It’s a fairly basic mono track, but it’s clean enough, with clear dialogue. While there really isn’t a need for remixed audio with films like The Devil’s Playground, it’s hard not to wish that Bruce Smeaton’s lovely score could have at least been included in stereo; it really deserves to be heard that way, but it sounds fine here.

Umbrella’s Region-Free Blu-ray release of The Devil’s Playground is #14 in their Sunburnt Screens line. The insert is reversible, with the flip side omitting the mandatory Australian “M” classification from the front cover artwork, and also substituting the theatrical poster art for the back cover blurb. The extras are all ported over from Umbrella’s 2008 DVD release:

  • Audio Commentary with Fred Schepisi
  • Featurette with Fred Schepisi and Key Cast and Crew (Upscaled HD – 44:57)
  • Interview with Fred Schepisi (Upscaled HD – 40:50)
  • Stills Gallery (HD – 49 in all – 4:18)
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:33)

The commentary with Fred Schepisi can be a bit dry, but he offers a valuable glimpse into his process. He opens by explaining how The Devil’s Playground was mostly self-financed, along with the help of some friends, family, and acquaintances. It was definitely a labor of love. He believes that technique needs to be strictly in accordance with what a director is trying to get across in the film, and not allowed to dominate the proceedings. Shooting long takes just for the sake of it is often at the expense of the performances. He also feels that it’s wrong to take sides with any of the characters, as that doesn’t allow each actor to put their best foot forward. Regarding the narrative for The Devil’s Playground, he notes that it’s easier to land the emotions correctly when the story comes from your own life—and he actually toned down the film compared to the reality of what he experienced. He says that he isn’t against religion, but is nevertheless opposed to repressive authoritarian structures like the ones he presents in the film.

The Featurette, which is subtitled Filmmaking by Faith, is a collection of interviews with Schepisi, Baker, editor Brian Kavenagh, Arthur Dignam, and Nick Tate. Schepisi opens by relating his own seminary experience, why he left, moving into the world of advertising as a teenager, and then the genesis of The Devil’s Playground. Baker explains his naturalistic style of lighting, Kavenagh talks about the editing process, including deliberately keeping takes with mistakes in them, and the actors analyze their own characters. They reminisce about Simon Burke as well. The Interview with Schepisi is additional footage from the same session as the one included in the Featurette, where he speaks about his entire career more broadly.

The Devil’s Playground was one of many films marked for preservation by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, but it doesn’t appear to have been the recipient of any restorative efforts yet, which is a shame. The film is important enough that it deserves to be seen regardless.

- Stephen Bjork

(You can follow Stephen on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook.)

 

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