Speaking to a packed cinema in Sydney, Eric Bana said during the Q&A following Romulus My Father that he didn’t do the film out of any sort of patriotism or gesture of support for the Australian industry, but chooses every role for what it says to him and that he simply fell in love with the character of Romulus.
At the end of the film, you’ll be thinking what there was to love about the man for a long time afterward.
It’s an autobiographical tale adapted from philosopher Raimond Gaita’s best selling memoir, depicting several years in his rural Victorian childhood. The son of a poor Romanian farmer Romulus (Bana), and a beautiful German mother bought undone by forces beyond her control (Potente), young Rai’s (Smit-McPhee) life is a document of hardship and both emotional and physical abuse.
His parents estranged, his mother comes to stay when she can stand it, driven back into Romulus’ arms by the love she still feels for him and then driven away by the need to escape his poverty-stricken life. His father is an enigma, loving, gentle, an almost mystical figure, but cold, quiet and at times brutal, as when Raimond tells an innocuous lie that incurs a savage beating.
While his parents battle their demons of shattered love and broken dreams, Rai is left to fend for himself, occasionally under the care of Romulus’ best friend Hora (Csokas), who reveals himself in one shocking sequence to be no less psychotic than Rai’s parents.
It’s not a social comment about mental illness, depression, divorce or suicide but it could have been. First time feature director Roxburgh doesn’t preach, simply selecting snippets of Gaita’s life from the book with which to tell the story of the crippling relationship of love, awe, fear and forgiveness he shares with his Dad.
Structurally the languid cinematography and design doesn’t seem to match the massive number of scenes, each one a short shred of memory, often with little spoken. If anything, Roxburgh at times buries the words that are left unspoken too deep, leaving you wondering what the characters are thinking.
Some filmgoers might roll their eyes, wondering how many more Australian movies set in the outback during the sixties they have to endure. Since even before The Year My Voice Broke, our filmmakers have had a love affair with the red dust and emotional desolation punctuated by early rock and roll hits.
But many more will go to see Bana in action. Like Russell Crowe, he chooses character-driven roles (even in Hollywood blockbusters) that stretch him. Unlike Crowe, Bana hits the mark every time, effortlessly slipping into the shoes of whomever he plays without trading on leading man looks or past glory.
With that pedigree – Roxburgh behind the camera, Bana in front, Robert (The Bank, Three Dollars) Connolly producing – there was never any doubt Romulus My Father would be a great film. But Gaita’s book was about his triumph over circumstances. Finding that story in such a cacophony of misery was Roxburgh’s challenge, and we learn through a child’s eyes that there’s hope and forgiveness to be found in the unlikeliest of places.