Redemptive Romulus a film for the ages

Romulus, My Father. 100 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Richard Roxburgh. Starring: Eric Bana, Franka Potente, Marton Csokas, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Romulus, my fatherRomulus, My Father should be remembered as one of the great Australian films of 2007. And while some may still find it hard to shake mental images of his plastic-wigged Ray Martin impersonation, it should also be the film that cements Eric Bana’s place as a serious actor of considerable ability.

Romulus, My Father concerns a Romanian migrant family living tough in rural Australia during the early 1960s, but it’s not strictly a reflection on the migrant experience. Nor is it a run-of-the-mill domestic drama, although both of these things, and the various hardships and joys they entail, provide important context for the film’s central concerns.

Primarily, this is a film about compassion and forgiveness, and how a young boy, Rai (Smit-McPhee), experiences the formation of these two qualities through his observance of those around him; in particular, his Romanian father, Romulus (Bana).

First-time director Roxburgh establishes Romulus as an essentially compassionate character from the first scene, in which a wide-eyed Rai watches his father gently revive a palm full of slumbering bees by swaying a warming light globe above them.

As the film progresses, Romulus's tendency towards compassion is shown to be a weakness as well as a strength. His wife, Christina (Potente), has abandoned Romulus and Rai and is living with Romulus's former best friend; throughout the film, Romulus is seen to repeatedly swallow his rage and sorrow at this dual betrayal.

He instead regards Christina and her partner with a degree of respect and good will he’d surely be within his rights to deny them. While this allows him to maintain a quiet — albeit vaguely pathetic — dignity, it inevitably takes its toll on his mental health and, potentially, on his relationship with his son.

Another friend of Romulus's, Hora (Csokas), represents compassion of a less passive kind. In contrast to Romulus’s revival of the bees, Hora’s most vivid compassionate act comes in the form of the slaughter of a coop full of sick chickens.

Romulus, my fatherWhat seems heartless to the horrified Rai is in fact a pragmatic form of mercy, which reflects, in brutal fashion, Hora’s more active attempts to heal his friend Romulus's selective blindness towards Christina's selfish behaviour.

As Rai (whose story is based on the childhood of author Raimond Gaita — Gaita’s eponymous memoir is the inspiration for the film) observes the actions and reactions of these men, it ultimately shapes his own responses to his mother’s self-centredness. In that respect it’s a coming-of-age tale, although of the more tragic variety.

There is an element of hope in the film’s ending; however the preceding journey is so tumultuous that, finally, it’s one character’s decision to not commit suicide — to continue or, more accurately, commence living — that resonates as the film’s most selfless act.

 

 

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