As I watched the movie that sultry Hobartian afternoon its subject matter kept leading me back to the novel I had almost finished – Favel Parrett’s ‘Past the Shallows’. I was thoroughly appreciating the film in a way that the novel hadn’t totally succeeded in doing. What the subject matter of both could lead to, though, was fully rammed home by the nightly news a few hours later. It is a long way from my island’s deep south to the hardscabble, run-down migrant dominated working class suburbs of Paris, but the young boy in ‘The Past’ so put me in the mind of the three lads that form the focus of Ms Parrett’s tome it was a tad unnerving. In both narratives young people were suffering a form of post-traumatic stress due to the ‘deaths’ of their respective mothers.
Directed by Asghar Farhadi, Iran’s Oscar entry featured the actress Bérénice Bejo as its fulcrum. If the name isn’t familiar to you, the face would be as the radiant love interest in the marvel of a movie that was ‘The Artist’. Although she still lights up the screen in this, Ms Bejo, as Marie, is not the glamorous star portrayed in the previous outing’s take on the silent era of film-making. She is a hard pressed mother attempting to get the balance of her frenetic life into some sort of alignment. Hers is an existence in the raw, not exactly impoverished, but nonetheless a struggle – so there’s precious little glamour to be had. She is estranged from two previous partners, has custody of two girls from the first entanglement and is struggling to come to terms with the aforementioned troubled child, Faoud (Elyes Aguis), traumatised by what occurred to his mother. He is prone to behavioural fluctuations and spends most of his time in Marie’s household. For a while, I did wonder just where this film was headed before it gradually dawned on me it was a double-barrelled mystery of sorts. What exactly does Marie feel for Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) whom she has summoned back from Tehran to sign the divorce papers, leaving her supposedly free to marry Samir (Tahar Rahim)? Both male actors are excellent in their roles – I was especially taken by the former. Marie’s eldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), as a teen with a big secret, is also wonderful. Perhaps it was only the boy who is a little wooden. Then there occurred the other mystery that took over the narrative – who exactly was responsible for Celine, Samir’s wife, taking her own life? The crafting of that part of the journey, attempting to unravel the threads of the dilemma, was quite subtle and cleverly structured – cinematic magic. The powerfully enigmatic ending had the audience at my screening seated through the credits – spellbound, awaiting for the slightest twitch. ‘The Past’, this year, has been decorated both at Cannes and the Césars, as well as nominated for a Golden Globe. If it appears at a screen near you, do yourselves a favour and make the effort. Be patient – it may take time to grip, but when that occurs, it does not let go.
Joe, Miles and Harry are also shattered by a mother’s death, but thankfully none of the movie’s men are as brutally insensitive as the father Parrett presents to us in ‘Past the Shallows’. With his own feelings numbed by alcohol and the rigours of diving for abalone off my island’s unforgiving southern coasts, he is creating a living hell for his boys. Joe is old enough to act on his dreams of escape, Miles finds solace in the surf (a Wintonesque touch) and the youngest, Harry, stumbles on first a dog and then a grizzled grandfather figure to take away some of his confusion and pain. If you have ever fronted a classroom for a period of time, you’d have encountered lads like these from the fringes of society – unkempt, often smelly from the lack of hygiene at home and perennially hungry. Some eventually rise above it, most don’t – only ending up perpetuating the cycle with their own offspring. In their cases any semblance of a school uniform they may wear only seems to accentuate their difference. They are absent more often than present, are frequently aggressive towards teachers as well as their peers and very difficult to counsel. The three lads here, though, seem to have a bit more going for them than that, with the book ending on a hopeful note, even though it comes too late for one. Ms Parrett admirably evokes the battling communities that are too far south of Hobart to attract the influence of the tree/sea changers that Cygnet, Huonville, Bruny, and the Channel do. Places closer to the end of the road such as Southport and Dover, as well, to some extent, Geeveston, in my recent visit, appear to have seen better days. Here listless teenagers hang around the few shops struggling to survive in harsh economic times. Big money can be made from abs, but the dad, often operating illegally, seems to be too guilt ridden and out of it to profit much. The boys are called on to work the boat in an ad hoc manner and they hate it. They live in constant fear of the father’s all too quick refuge in violence. The mundanity and paucity of these kids’ lives are well conveyed by the author, but she seems to lose the plot somewhat in the climatic moments – the shark landing on the boat, the seizing up of the air pumps during a dive and the rescue attempt of the final chapters. These seem, to this reader, somewhat lacking in authenticity – something that is her plus as events build towards these moments. Heavy hitters have praised this debut and this writer of relatively tender years would seem to have big wraps attached to her future on the basis of this first publication. Generally it is quite easy to see why this should be the case. I would suggest it is as good as any textbook for local trainee teachers to alert them to the type of home backgrounds that may afflict some of their clientele in the coming years. Such is Tassie’s bleak economic horizon, at the moment, this is also likely to be the ongoing case.
After the movie, with having finished the final few pages of ‘Past the Shallows’, I settled down to watch the nightly news on the ABC. Like the rest of the country, Leigh and I were horrified by the leading item. The little Mornington Peninsula community of Tyabb had suffered a tragedy beyond words of a father openly killing his own son on a cricket field. From the black arm bands of our cricketers in South Africa to the palpably distraught head of the Victorian police searching for answers, this event brings to all the reality of troubled lives, affected by mental illness, into harsh reality. As Luke Batty’s mother so bravely and poignantly reflected on our screens that night, ‘…family violence happens to everybody no matter how nice your house is, no matter how intelligent you are.’ The film and book were sobering, Luke’s fate – unspeakably sad.
Favel Parrett’s website = http://www.favelparrett.com.au/