The Devil’s Playground is set in 1953 in a seminary in Australia for young boys intending to enter a religious order of teaching Brothers.
The opening of the film seems happy enough, with a crowd of healthy, rowdy boys disporting themselves on the college lake – swimming, diving, paddling boats, indulging in cheerful horseplay. A seminary Brother watches from the bank, benign and friendly.
Later we see the boys in the classroom, in chapel, at meals and in the dormitories, and gradually become aware of the constant repressive supervision which controls every moment of their lives, the rigid code of rules and restrictions governing their conduct at all times.
There seems to be a very long list of things that are forbidden and actions (to us quite normal) which are regarded as positively sinful. To appear totally nude before anyone – even in the shower – is strictly forbidden as an offence against chastity . . . exposure being equated with temptation.
These boys are not received into the college purely for a formal education, although they receive one. They are being prepared to take religious vows when they are old enough.
No physical discipline is imposed. The rigorous control is far more subtle and efficacious – a form of spiritual brainwashing by insidious pressures which bewilder the young mind, causing stress and disturbance. Entirely natural manifestations of physical change and development are accepted as shameful, even “unnatural”: instincts and desires normal to adolescence are seen as temptations to be resisted with God’s help – earnestly prayed for.
It is not only the boys who suffer under this repressive regime. For the ever-vigilant staff, the strain is even more severe. The boys still have the chance of “opting out”: for the Brothers, there is no rescue before death.
They are an interesting group, these dedicated men of widely varying ages and diverging temperaments. The ageing Abbott, Head of the Order, whose active days are over (he dies, much mourned, before the film ends) seems isolated in his warm humanity and good sense. He alone, it seems, understands the problems of youth, and deciphers them with sympathy and humour. The boys love and trust him.
He realises, sadly, that all is not as it should be with his beloved college, and whenever he comes into direct contact with any of the boys, he tries to reassure their minds with his gentle wisdom and humour, and even encourage them to laugh a little at their own anxieties.
But he is very old now, and the Brothers no longer heed his counsel but go their own ways.
Only one, Brother Francine (Arthur Dignam), a member of the Order for 18 years, is a self-tortured zealot who has failed to come to terms with his rebellious body or his haunted mind and bitterly declaims his loathing of life.
The story is centred mainly on 13-year-old Tom Allen (Simon Burke), a naturally cheerful and resilient boy who is also intensely serious about his intended ‘vocation’ which he longs to establish beyond doubt. Thus he suffers considerable worry and distress from the many moral pressures brought to bear on him, and his involvement with so-called ‘sins’ which he can neither understand nor control.
Fortunately for Tom, the Abbott’s friendly counsel, combined with his own healthy mind and innate commonsense show him the right path to an unexpectedly happy ending.
This is a thoughtful, honest and passionately sincere film which faces up squarely to the serious issues involved and their sometimes horrifying consequences, but without exaggeration.
Director Fred Schepisi, who also wrote the screenplay, based the film on his experience of life in just such an institution.