Romulus My Father

Starring Eric Bana, Franka Potente, Marton Csokas and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Directed by Richard Roxburgh
Running Time: 104 minutes
Rated: Rated M (moderate themes, moderate sex scenes, moderate coarse language).
Romulus My Father. Starring Eric Bana, Franka Potente, Marton Csokas and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Directed by Richard Roxburgh. 104 minutes. Rated M (moderate themes, moderate sex scenes, moderate coarse language).

While Raimond Gaita was professor of philosophy at the Australian Catholic University he was a regular contributor to the Catholic press. He is now Professor of Moral Philosophy at King's College London.

Romulus My Father is based on his book of the same name, published in 1998. This biopic spans three years of his life from 1960 to 63.

Rai's father Romulus (Bana) is lost in a foreign world. A decent, hard-working Romanian, he has a runaway wife, a son to care for and the dashed hopes of many a migrant. The Gaita boys do it tough on a poor selection on the outskirts of Frogmore in northwest Victoria. There life is punctuated by visits from Romulus' wife, Christina, Rai's mother. On seeing the reality of life in the New World, Christina (Potente) has taken flight. Romulus stays and fights.

Rai (Smit-McPhee) adores his mother and longs for the three of them to be permanently reunited. When Christina falls pregnant to her boyfriend in town, Gaita senior begins to unravel and Raimond starts to live between two worlds. All the childlike hope in the world can't put things back together again. Rai witnesses domestic violence, suicide, poverty, infidelity and child neglect.

St Joseph's Catholic boarding school, and a few good books, becomes the safe place wherein a gifted boy can grow up.

This is a survivor's tale, and a homage to a father who was worn down by a life most of us could not bear, and to a mother whose mental health never allowed her to understand the real demands of "for better or for worse.'

As sad as this story is, there is a hopefulness to this tale and not just because we know the style of fine man this boy grew up to be. It's also the hope of all migrants in their dislocation, awkwardness and determination.

First-time director Richard Roxburgh is a celebrated Australian actor. Here he draws out moving performances from all the major players, but the highest commendation must go to Kodi Smit-McPhee. He is mesmerizing as the young Rai, portraying emotions and reactions with the assurance of a mature artist.

The structure of the story could initially be disconcerting for some people. It's told as a series of fragments, as if Rai is turning the pages of an old photograph album. The device works because that is how most of us recall our childhood.

Celebrated Australian cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson gives us superb pictures, while Robert Cousin's attention to period detail completes the film.

Romulus My Father is not only the best Australian film released so far this year, it is a fine cinematic achievement full stop.

Dendy Out now

Fr Richard Leonard is the director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.