Three Summers (M) National release The Ornithologist (O Ornitologo) (MA15+) Limited release School Life (M) Limited release
Over three years the same people attend a (fictional) music festival, Westival, staged in rural Western Australia and during this period attitudes change, relationships evolve, friendships are born. That’s Three Summers in a nutshell.
It’s Ben Elton’s second feature as director and comes 17 years after his first, Maybe Baby (2000). What’s more, it’s a thoroughly Aussie experience from the talented British satirist who has made this country his home.
This is a movie that’s easy to take, even though it’s really not very subtle. There are some aspects of contemporary Australian society that clearly bother Elton, and here he homes in on them. The plight of refugees left in unlimited detention is one of his concerns and the problems being experienced in some Aboriginal communities is another.
Among the regular attendees at Westival, apart from radio commentator Queenie (Magda Szubanski), are the Warrikins, a folk rock band featuring father (John Waters, excellent) and daughter (Rebecca Breeds, also very good). The old man is an alcoholic but won’t attend the counselling sessions conducted by Deborah Mailman, while Keevie, his daughter, is getting sick of one-night stands. When she meets Roland (Robert Sheehan), an earnest young techno musician who plays the theremin, it seems that romance will follow, but such is the structure of Elton’s film that it will take a couple more summers for that to happen.
Then there’s a cranky old Morris dancer — played by Michael Caton complete with bells and floral hat — who reckons Aborigines should stay in their place and refugees should go back to where they came from. In fact, as his perky granddaughter (Nichola Balestri) points out, he was a boat person himself, having come to this country from England — involuntarily, because he was one of those supposedly orphaned English schoolchildren transported to Australia after World War II.
Though these characters are, over a period, capable of modifying their views, some remain true to their principles, such as the feminist folk singer who changes the lyrics to timeless Australian songs ( Waltzing Matilda becomes Raping Matilda!).
Kelton Pell plays an Aboriginal dancer and didgeridoo player concerned about the welfare of the younger generation, while Amay Jain plays a young Afghan refugee living with foster parents — he somehow manages to organise for a trio of Afghan musicians to be released from a detention centre long enough to play at the festival and to make a speech about the hellish life they are leading before they’re returned to detention under police escort.
These and other characters (including a butch and authoritative security guard played by Kate Box) are explored without a great deal of nuance. Elton seems so eager to get his social messages across to a wide audience that he all-
SO THE STRANGE STORY PROGRESSES, WITH SCENES OF NUDITY, SEX, MUTED VIOLENCE AND INCREASINGLY BIZARRE SITUATIONS
The Ornithologist ows no shades of grey to intrude. But the film is worth seeing for Waters, giving a spirited portrayal of a loving father set in his ways and unable to see that times are changing, and Breeds as his lively, talented, worldly wise daughter. Singling them out shouldn’t detract from the rest of the ensemble, all of whom do sterling work under Elton’s conventional direction. Three Summers is easy to take but not up to the standard of Elton’s past television work. If your taste runs to material that’s genuinely original and strange, seek out The Ornithologist ( O Ornitologo), a stunningly well-photographed Portuguese film from writer-director Joao Pedro Rodrigues. In this, the title character is Fernando (Paul Hamy), a gay birdwatcher who has left his lover behind in Lisbon and headed into the north of the country, near the Spanish border and the Santiago de Compostela track, to study black storks that are breeding on the banks of a fast-flowing river.
Catastrophe strikes when the unwary Fernando drifts into fast-flowing rapids and his canoe is wrecked. He’s rescued by a couple of Chinese Christian girls (Han Wen, Chan Suan) who have strayed a long way from the pilgrims’ walk. They spend a friendly evening together but the next morning he awakens to discover that he’s securely bound to a tree and that the girls have something very nasty in mind for him. He manages to escape and stumbles on a deaf and dumb goatherd named Jesus (Xelo Cagiao), who sucks milk from the teats of the animals and swims in the nude.
And so the strange story progresses, with scenes of nudity, sex, muted violence and increasingly bizarre situations. I was thoroughly puzzled by what it all meant until I did some research and discovered that the story is inspired by St Anthony of Padua (who is quoted in the film’s opening title); the saint’s real name was Fernando, he was shipwrecked and he had other strange encounters that are mirrored, and subverted, in Rodrigues’s film. With this in mind The Ornithologist can be seen as an allegorical and at times satiri- cal version of the saint’s life, and the closest cinematic comparison I can make is Luis Bunuel’s La voie lactee ( The Milky Way, 1968), which was set in the same vicinity and which cheekily satirised aspects of Catholic dogma.
Even if elements of The Ornithologist are a bit baffling, it’s still a visual treat and it’s certainly never boring. You tend to experience the film with a sense of wonder, puzzling what on earth is coming next. When so much cinema is painfully predictable, that’s no bad thing. School Life is an Irish fly-on-the-wall documentary by Nersa Ni Chianain and David Rane that looks at teachers and pupils of Headfort, Ireland’s last boarding school for primary students. A coeducational institution, the school clearly has been lucky to have as teachers for well over 40 years John and Amanda Leyden, who are about to retire. The Leydens, who met as teachers and married in 1972, live in a house on the school grounds with their dogs, and they’re well aware that when they retire they’ll have to move home as well.
In the meantime they throw themselves into their teaching. Amanda runs the English department and is producing the annual school play, which this year is Hamlet, while John teaches, among other things, music and organises the school band. The headmaster, Dermot Dix, is himself an old boy of the school and as a boy was taught by the Leydens.
The school year begins with newcomers racked with homesickness on their first night as boarders, and ends with more tears as they say goodbye to friends and teachers. But in between the children visibly mature and prosper, and relate to the experience and dedication of the teaching staff. Boarding school, especially for these youngsters (aged eight to 12) has rarely looked more appealing.
Taking aim in a scene from
Three Summers; a scene from School Life,