Black Robe (1991)

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Director: Bruce Beresford

Stars: Lothaire Bluteau, Aden Young, August Schellenberg, Tantoo Cardinal, Sandrine Holt

In my mind, the past 40 years have yielded three masterful English language historical films about thwarted attempts by Jesuit missionaries to spread Christianity to new frontiers. Those three films are Roland Joffe’s 1986 film The Mission, set in South America in the mid-1700s; Bruce Beresford’s 1991 film Black Robe, set in Canada in the 1630s; and Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence, set in Japan around the same time. These films have experienced differing receptions: Joffe’s film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, was nominated for seven Oscars, and its Morricone score still pervades popular culture; Beresford’s film won a smattering of Canadian and Australian film awards, as well as the Golden Reel Award for highest grossing Canadian film that year, but didn’t exactly set the world alight (later Golden Reel recipients include Johnny Mnemonic and Air Bud, just for context); and shockingly, Scorsese’s film caused nary a murmur on its release, despite its status as a long-gestating passion project from a director widely considered the premier filmmaker of the era. While my focus in this review is squarely on Black Robe (given Down Under Flix’s Antipodean brief and the film’s status as a Canadian-Australian co-production from an Australian director), I am also fascinated by how these films complement and diverge from each other, and will touch on this later.

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Kriv Stenders double feature: The Illustrated Family Doctor (2005), Lucky Country (2009)

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In a recent interview with The Age, director Kriv Stenders characterises his ability to continue working as a marker of success. He’s not wrong. Sift through the back catalogue of films covered on Down Under Flix and you’ll find an abundance of directors who debuted and bowed out with a single film (e.g. Dating the Enemy’s Megan Simpson Huberman, Beyond Innocence’s Scott Murray, Bondi Tsunami’s Rachael Lucas) or who struggled to generate output following earlier successes. Stenders remains productive and prolific, with a new film, Australia Day, on this year’s festival circuit and a television remake of Wake in Fright in the works. He’s also found a measure of mainstream success with his Red Dog films. The first, 2011’s Red Dog, is a modern family classic, a spunky, funny tearjerker and one of the best local films of the 21st century. Its follow-up, 2016’s Red Dog: True Blue, got a lukewarm reception but it’s a nice old school Australian bildungsroman with a light touch and a canine co-star in the Storm Boy/Blue Fin tradition. The films that launched Stenders’ career, however, are very different animals.

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Metal Skin (1994)

EMBIGGEN Metal Skin

Director: Geoffrey Wright

Stars: Aden Young, Ben Mendelsohn, Tara Morice, Nadine Garner, Chantal Contouri

First viewing, via DVD

Metal Skin is director Geoffrey Wright’s follow-up to Romper Stomper, his controversial, barnstorming 1992 film about young neo-Nazis in Melbourne. That film announced both Wright and star Russell Crowe as ferocious, major new talents, scoring the former a Best Director nomination and the latter a Best Actor gong at that year’s AFI Awards.  Wright remained on Melbourne’s mean streets for Metal Skin (and would revisit them again in 2006’s Macbeth) and the city proves once more a dark, seedy muse for the filmmaker.

The film opens with a distressed scream over pitch black, before cutting to a dazed, visibly injured woman wandering through a maze of shipping containers. It’s a fitting opening for a film that feels, at times, like a celluloid manifestation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. From there, the film plots tragic courses for its four young protagonists: Roslyn (Nadine Garner), the woman glimpsed at film’s start; Dazey (Ben Mendelsohn), her disaffected and cheating boyfriend; Savina (Tara Morice), a troubled young woman who rebels against her devout mother (Chantal Contouri) by dabbling in the dark arts; and Joe (Aden Young), a rodent-faced twentysomething charged with looking after his ill father. When Joe starts a new job alongside Dazey and Savina, he falls for Savina, who is infatuated with Dazey, who uses and discards her, and the film follows the fallout of this damaged love triangle.

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