It’s one of those films that somehow managed to slip under my radar for a long time and I found that surprising because it has some of the themes that interest me as a film viewer. The setting of Fred Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground is a rigid Roman Catholic seminary in Australia, 1953. Based on the director’s own childhood experiences in such a seminary, the film gives us a peek into the lives of boys and their teachers – the brothers – who are constantly tormented by their repressed sexuality.
It’s the onset of puberty for the boys and, naturally, the curiosity and urge to explore their sexuality combined with the stringent rules that forbid them from encouraging these “dirty” thoughts, slowly take a toll on them – well, at least a few of them, which includes the 13-year-old Tom Allen (Simon Burke), the film’s main character. Tom wants to be someone important in the religious circles and the brothers think he has a bright future. However, the thoughts of girls, masturbation, and the accompanying guilt have been giving him sleepless nights.
It’s not just the boys who are struggling, but also the brothers, especially one Brother Francine who, despite lecturing the boys on self-discipline and warning them against showering naked, has been discreetly nursing sexual fantasies of his own and has no idea how to cope with them. In one scene, he is nervously loitering around at a public swimming pool and, seeing the women there, his voyeuristic tendencies start to kick in. And there is one Brother Victor (Nick Tate), an alcoholic, who sneaks out one night to have a great time at a pub and, upon seeing two lascivious women, ponder the prospect of finally giving into temptation.
Meanwhile, a bunch of fanatical boys in the seminary start a sort of cult and come up with masochistic rituals which they hope will help them keep impure thoughts at bay. One of them makes an attempt to lure Tom into it. The most likable character in the film is Brother Sebastian, played by Charles McCullum. He is a man at the end of his life and all these years of celibacy and unfair rules seems to have finally led him to question his beliefs. At one point, he even blurts out the question in front of the other brothers: What if there is no God? Upon sensing Tom’s inner conflict, he tells him to follow his instincts and leave the seminary if he wants to.
The film reinforces the thought that celibacy is simply unnatural. The acting is superb all around and Schepisi took great care in not overly sensationalizing its subject matter or being heavily critical of this institution. It just demands an acceptance of man’s natural urges and that too much suppression can only make things worse. As Brother Sebastian points out: “What’s so wrong with masturbation anyway? If you don’t do it yourself it comes out of its own accord. For years I fought against it. All you learn is to hate your body.”