Judge Brendan Babish thinks this is the most depressing film he's seen since Bumfights.
The bond between a father and his son can never be broken.
After winning three awards from the Australia Film Institute—including Best Picture—in 2007, Romulus, My Father received a minor, three-screen release in America that generated little interest and virtually no business. Though the film features name actors—Eric Bana (Munich) and Franka Potente (Run Lola Run)—it seems Americans just aren't eager to go out to enjoy a bleak period piece set in rural Australia. But perhaps viewed in the living room, on the home theater system? That might be a different story.
Facts of the Case
The titular Romulus (Bana) is a single father, and Yugoslavian immigrant, struggling to raise his young son, Rai (Kodi Smit-McPhee) on a small farm in the Australian outback. The two seem to live a simple, seemingly uncomplicated existence, until Romulus's estranged wife, Christina (Potente), returns. Christina has not one, but two destructive flaws: depression and nymphomania. Of course, these strain relations not only in the nuclear family—where relations are already strained from financial pressures—but among Romulus's circle of acquaintances, including his brother Hora (Marton Csokas (Kingdom of Heaven).
Romulus, My Father is based on the memoir of Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita. I haven't read the memoir, so I can hardly judge its literary merits, but as adapted for the screen it's reminiscent of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. There are major differences, of course, but McCourt and Gaita both had hardscrabble upbringings (McCourt in the 1930s, Gaita the 1950s) in dysfunctional families. Perhaps what makes them most similar is that both are incredibly sad. In Angela's Ashes this is an asset; in Romulus, My Father it turns out to be a liability.
Sadness in and of itself is not a problem. Angela's Ashes is set in an evocative Irish city, and McCourt's large Catholic family is populated with colorful characters. There are few characters in Romulus, My Father, though, and nearly all are stoic and dour. When tragedy does strike the Gaita brood—and Romulus, My Father is a series of unpleasant events—it's difficult to be deeply affected or find anything redeeming in the family's misery.
This is especially unfortunate because the film does so many other things right. Both Bana and Potente are strong actors, and they give solid performances as a mismatched couple who just can't seem to quit each other. While Bana won an Australia Film Institute Award for Best Actor, it is actually Potente who provides the film's lifeblood in the movie's most dynamic part. Young actor Smit-McPhee—who also managed to earn himself an AFI Award—is capable in a demanding role, but his shrill pleas whenever the psycho-melodrama in the family gets too heavy got a little nettlesome somewhere around the third or fourth time.
Additionally, director Richard Roxburgh—who is primarily a character actor—deserves a lot of credit for successfully recreating 1950s Australia (to my unlearned eyes, at least). In addition to the film's strong performances, Romulus, My Father excels at atmosphere, with the Gaita's small farm and small town seeming appropriately humid, rustic, and bleak.
Despite this, I was simply unable to find the redemption or uniqueness, or even interest, in the Gaita family's misery that would make Romulus, My Father palpable. Sadness may be a powerful emotion, but it does not necessary equal profundity.
Though the colors in the movie tend to be dark and muted, the picture is surprisingly strong, with the dirt farm and tattered clothing are rendered in pristine detail. The Dolby Digital mix doesn't get much of a workout in the film, but is effective. The DVD also contains some perfunctory extras, with some deleted scenes, a making-of, and storyboards.
Romulus, My Father features an impressively realistic depiction of a dysfunctional family of immigrants in rural Australia in the middle of the twentieth century. This is achieved largely through universally strong performances from the cast and an effective recreation of the time period from the director. Unfortunately, while Rumulus, My Father features sadness in spades, there is little in the here to provide interest in this series of travails. You might feel guilty for nodding off while a family disintegrates, but that may be the most natural response.
Guilty of piling sadness upon sadness without much purpose.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
• Making of Romulus, My Father
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