I enjoyed the book a lot when it came out. Recently I heard Raimond Gaita reading some sections of the book on ‘first person’ on the great Radio National Book Show.
When the film began I was immediately surprised by the absence of a narrator. And Gaita did such a good job of reading his book that a few slabs of well chosen – perhaps paired back narration in the movie would be the obvious way to go. The reason I expected this was that I couldn’t really imagine any way of getting what seemed to me the essence of the book across without someone conveying it directly – explaining it. And the reason for this is that Gaita’s message is suffused with his own philosophy.
Central to the story is the fact that, in the eyes of the narrator – a once young boy and now a professor of philosophy – Romulus was Good Man. In the book he has a radical kind of goodness. He is good in a way that gave him contempt for sham in others. He was good in a way that seemed to give him both understanding and great patience for all the ways in which he was let down and all the difficulties he encountered, all the way things just went wrong.
He also had a great friend in Hora and they are together custodians of a way of looking at the world which likewise acknowledged the good as ultimately the only thing that was worthwhile. One of the main themes of the book is how Romulus’ work stands for his goodness. He has extraordinary facility with whatever practical building or fixing task he takes on, he crafts ironwork of great integrity and beauty and gradually acquires a reputation for his fine work around the neighbourhood. For Romulus reputation – of course so long as it is deserved – is all.
I must say that it’s occured to me to wonder how true all this is. I wonder how much of his own philosophical personality Gaita has projected onto his understanding of his father. Who knows? I don’t suppose Gaita can really know.
Be that as it may, the film picked out the more dramatic scenes in the book and tied together the episodes with very little dialogue. To take one example, I would have thought that Romulus’ attitude to his work was central to the portrait. And if one were to do without a narrator it would be a great visual way of showing the relationship between Romulus and his work. All we get is a line of dialogue where he says a man is judged by his work and the odd bit of red hot iron being hammered on an anvil. For Romulus his work was an anchor of his character and no doubt a haven from the chaos occasionally around him. But in the film it’s one damn disaster after another and we never see how work is to Romulus’ character and his life.
At another time Romulus beats his son for lying to him. In the book the point of the story is not that Romulus ‘lost it’ but that he couldn’t bear his child to lie. (This is perhaps an idealised picture). After the beating a vengeful Raimond says to his father that he – Romulus – doesn’t love him. Later Romulus says to him ‘Never believe that I don’t love you’.
This story is captured in the film – though as I’ve said the impression is of Romulus ‘losing it’ whereas at least according to my memory his beating of Raimond is not a loss of control but discipline and an insistence on honesty. If there is anger in the book it is abhorrence of dishonesty. In any event, the upshot of the story in the book is the boy’s being inculcated into the fathers’ goodness to the extent of feeling deeply ashamed of himself for being so self centred as to try to avenge himself against his father with the most hurful thing he can think of even though he knows the fact of his father Romulus’ deep love of him. (Gaita the author is not suggesting he was wicked as a boy for doing this, but the narrative captures the boy’s thinking that of himself).
I recall being surprised when people described the film – before I’d seen it – as ghastly and bleak. Having read it a long time ago that wasn’t the impression it made on me. That’s perhaps partly insensitivity on my part. Certainly plenty of terrible things happened – suicides, mental illness, domestic violence.
But the whole thing was suffused with the goodness of Romulus and that was the lasting impression left – on me anyway. The film is just one awful thing after another. Sitting through it one of the things that one becomes increasingly incredulous of is how young Raimond could remain normal through such unremitting and brutish ghastliness. But of course if Raimond feels the suffusion of Romulus’ goodness around him then that might explain how he survived and ultimately thrived as a person, how he got some of the ideas he got. I think that was partly on Gaita’s mind when he wrote the book, though it is mostly just a paean to his father.
So it’s two stars from me. There are a whole lot of things that are well done in the film, cinematography, acting of the actors who played Raimond, Christina – Romulus’ wife and Raimond’s mother and of Hora and Mitru. I thought Eric Bana was pretty awful – but OK if the idea was to convey Romulus as a brooding, occasionally brutish man who at the same time was, like many of us, someone who hopes that he’s not a bad person. But that doesn’t make much of a movie, and at least on my recollection, it’s a travesty of the book.
Reminds me of someone I once lived in a group house with who could recite whole Monty Python scripts with all the jokes somehow removed. If he performed a joke-ectemy on Monty Python, this film performs a goodness-ectemy on Romulus and on Gaita’s lovely elegy for his remarkable father.