Romulus my arse

51qframdrbl_ss500_.jpgI’ve just been to see Romulus my father. To the left is a picture of the actual Romulus. The filmic version is another story.

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.

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14 years ago

Thanks Nicholas, I too heard snippets of it on RN and was very impressed with Romulus and Raimond, you could hear his reflective wisdom in the tone of his voice. His father’s influence seemed to have had a big and positive impact on him, and certainly has shaped his approach to life, and is possibly the reason he took up philosophy.

After reading your review however, I wont bother seeing the fillum.

david tiley
14 years ago

You can read Gaita’s response to the film here. He is very gracious; nonetheless I am amazed it doesn’t have a narration track. Such an obvious thing to do.

david tiley
14 years ago

By the way, Romulus has taken two million dollars in six weeks at the cinema, doing rather better than Clubland. This has an interesting effect – it tends to suggest that our audiences are preferring a dark film with a known Australian marquee actor over a film sold as lighter with a less well know British marquee actor.

None of this is inspiring, by the way. At $10 per ticket, it suggests that less people have seen it than watch the average SBS documentary, though they do have to visit another place to do it. I allus reckon the most important figure for a film is the total number of Australians who see it, and we don’t know that figure until the TV screenings have occurred and the DVD results are in as well.

There is also the matter of prints and advertising budgets, which have to be outlaid to get a return. A film with a very modest release and budget needs to do about a million dollars at the Oz box office before it starts to return money to the investors.

Clubland is gnawing a tiny hole in the US market, starting on a handful of screens. It will be fascinating to see how it goes. Romulus is yet to start that adventure.

jen
jen
14 years ago

From David’s Link –

‘”Honesty” was not for my father or for Hora the name of a narrow virtue, nor indeed of a single one. Their sense of it was crucially informed by their fierce contempt for the external signs of status and prestige. They believed that an honest person could never take pleasure in pretending to be better than someone else, because (they thought) only someone who is wilfully blind could fail to realise that at any time they could lose everything that gives them even the appearance of superiority. More seriously, they could lose everything that gives sense to their lives. Acknowledgement of that vulnerability, fully in his head and in his heart, defined my father’s “compassionate fatalism”. It informed his response to my mother’s need and his sense of a common humanity with everyone he met.’

As Nigel’s(a young stockman in NW NSW)old Dad used to say ‘You used to to know where you stood. A man used to be judged by his work but now….’
– now there is virtual living!

We have no access to Clubl;and in the NT – moving to melbourne when we get the roof.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
14 years ago

Thanks for this post, Nicholas. It won’t be the first time the release of a film has hurried me to read the book it’s based on, though I have no intention of seeng the film itself. Perhaps RG is counting on the film affecting lots of people this way!

Darlene
14 years ago

Yeesh, a bit harsh. The film was flawed, but it has some lovely moments (it must be said that the last film I saw was The Dead Girl so I am into very happy cinema). Totally going to disagree about Bana. He did very well and made you really feel the decency of the man (surely a film about decent blokes is long overdue in Australia). As a whole did feel like it only touched the surface, though. I note that Richard Roxburgh directed it. Roxburgh starred in a film about an eccentric Australian composer (can’t remember name of it) and it was also superficial. I give it three and a half out of five. The Dead Girl gets 5 out of 5, by the way.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

I felt the absense of a narrator when I saw the film. I know some people say that a good film should rather than tell, but this film reads like a man looking back on his boyhood. It seems strange that the adult man’s voice missing.

Maybe I like films with narrators better than most people. I like films that have a strong point of view and that suggest that you shouldn’t completely trust your narrator’s recollection of events and what they mean.

Peter Ferguson
Peter Ferguson
14 years ago

I knew Romulus from 1970 for over 10 years while working as a vet in Maryborough ( I treated his Goats). I have never met his son but after reading the book I feel his son has captured the persona I knew, not easy for a son. I have not seen the film. He would philosophise while drinking a potent clear spirit he distilled from some fruit (I can’t remember what). He always paid his account with small bottles of this potent potable.