Romulus, My Father

Review by Jane Freebury

I imagine that we all feel privileged when invited to share the intimate details of someone’s childhood, and most especially when the story is difficult to tell. Raimond Gaita’s book on which this film is based bravely shared with the world the turmoil in his life when he was a vulnerable ten-year-old.

His parents, Romulus and Christina, had emigrated from post-war Europe to make a new start in a new land. Unfortunately it didn’t work out for them, a migrant story that would repeat itself many, many times over across the country.

As the adults in his life came undone, young Rai was witness to betrayal and violence that resulted in mental illness and suicide. It is so sad that a child had to make sense of devastating events so early in his life. But at the same time it is inspiring that he did, and was able to move on to become the eminent professor of philosophy he is today.

Did the wonder of summer nights under the stars and of hazy days in dry fields studded with eucalypts offset the sadness Rai saw around him? The images on location in the Bendigo region of Victoria, a stone’s throw away from the very spot where the Gaita home once stood, seems to suggest that it did.

Aside from life in the countryside, the strong bond is the one between father and son. Romulus (Eric Bana) and Raimond (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sit together in silence over a dinner inside their isolated homestead, but it isn’t an uncomfortable silence, just the quiet that develops when two people understand each other.

Clearly someone is missing and when she (Hanka Potente) arrives, she is full of restless vitality. Whatever she hankers for, it can’t be found on Romulus’ small acreage and after re-establishing intimacy as wife and mother, she leaves them again for Melbourne.

In the hands of actor-turned-director Richard Roxburgh and veteran cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, this is a sobering and reflective tale, free of artifice and dependent on performance, which is very good all round.

It contains one or two hints about the trajectory that Rai is to take in life, but I wanted more of a sense that this young boy was developing inner resources that would see him through in the end. Still, it’s a powerful and ultimately uplifting experience.

4 stars