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Australia 2007
Directed by
Richard Roxburgh
118 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

Romulus My Father

Synopsis: Romulus Gaita (Eric Bana) is a Romanian immigrant living in central Victoria in the 1960s. His attractive German-bornwife, Christina (Franka Potente), feels out of place in this rural environment and carries on affairs with other men. She is seldom home and is a neglectful mother to their nine-year-old son, Raimond (Kodi Smit McPhee). Finally she leaves to live with her latest affair, Mitru (Russell Dykstra), who happens to be the brother of Romulus’s close friend, Hora (Martin Czokas). Despite all this, Romulus remains desperately in love with her and the boy adores his mother. Christina has another child then returns to live near her original family but things deteriorate and father and son who have coped through so much must continue to battle through whatever life dishes up to them.

Raimond Gaita, now 61 years old and a renowned writer and philosopher, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 1998 with a memoir of his childhood, Romulus My Father. This film adaptation, lovingly directed by well-known actor Richard Roxburgh, is a beautiful and sensitive rendering of a true story about love and overcoming adversities.

Even though the film is an historically convincing depiction of country Australia in the 1960s it never feels like a self-conscious “period piece”. Shot in and around Maldon and Castlemaine, with the Gaita homestead, (more like a run-down shack!), Frogmore, reconstructed where it had once stood, the attention to detail makes for a spell-binding sense of authenticity.

Even more important, given that most of the story is seen through young Raimond’s eyes, is that the script, written by poet Nick Drake, is immediate and believable. Romulus My Father makes one feels what is might be like being a child undergoing a totally bewildering experience of his parent's disintegrating marriage and yet managing to process it through his own level-headedness and even experiencing the occasional exuberance and joy of a child.

Roxburgh never labours any scenes, and yet he carefully takes time to let them unfold, such as the simple yet powerful scene where father and son sit at the dinner table, and young Rai drinks milk with childish enthusiasm. Equally critical to Rai’s ability to survive is the “goodness” of those around him, particularly his father and Hora, who takes a large role in the boy’s upbringing. In so many scenes, dialogue is unnecessary – the “feel” of the moment says it all, captured in small details such as the streaks of tears on Rai’s face after Romulus has given him a belting or the sounds of the cicadas in the shimmering summer paddocks.

All performances are brilliant, from the main leads down to the small character roles. Nine-year-old Kodi Smit McPhee plays Raimond with a gift one can only marvel at as he imbues the child with sensitivity and authenticity. So convincing is he that apparently the real Gaita felt he was watching himself recreated as a child. Eric Bana brings a quiet, battler’s strength to his character, which is made all the more tragic as at one point he descends into a period of mental breakdown and is institutionalised, after his heartbreak over Christina. Franka Potente plays Christina, and she is truly wonderful as this tragic malcontent who seems unable to get her life in any sort of order and brings only anguish to all those who love her. Dykstra and Czokas are marvellous as the two brothers, and even the tiny role of local homeless bloke, Vacek (Jacek Korman) leaps off the screen.

With cinematography, sound and art direction that recreates its time and place so well this is a gem of a film. But even more, Romulus My Father captures a piece of ordinary life both intimate and connected with its deeper realities.




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