Out of a commendable attempt at fairness, "The Devil's Playground" shows life at an Australian seminary from a dozen different angles. But without a point of view, this earnest essay is, ultimately, pointless.
Actually, only one aspect of the religious life is shown: the sexual feelings of the monks and their pubescent pupils. Masturbation is Topic A at this establishment, and also B, C and D. If there is any inhibition here, it's not in discussions. The monks are forever encouraging the boys to confess, formally and informally, to masturbation, some assuring them of its normality, others condemning it; and the boys are constantly making knowing comments about it to one another, or giving advice or demonstrations.
Yet this is not an erotic film. It goes slowly, with a restraint ranging from the poetic to the dull-and-dim, through the routine of daily life -- prayers, classes, mealtimes -- but always on this issue, from a range of viewpoints.
One monk goes about screaming "I hate life" and "Your body is your worst enemy" and "You must be on guard against all your senses at all times" -- and is tortured by erotic dreams. Another, elderly and mellow, argues, "What's wrong with masturbation? It has to come out somehow." The little boys go after themselves and one another. Some of them turn to masochism, in rituals that end in one boy's death. Others disappear suddenly without explanation, presumably having quit or been dismissed from the religious life.
What is this film saying -- that celibacy isn't easy? Did the church ever pretend that it was?
The two characters the film seems to identify with most are a monk who makes forays into town, incognito, for mock pick- ups that stop short of sex, and a boy who has problems with bed-wetting. And yet both of them are strongly attracted to the calling, for reasons that are not explained. Apparently there are other aspects of monasticism than celibacy, although you would not know it from this film. It only suggests that the deprivation is worthwhile for some people, but not for others, and that some can handle it and some can't, and that some question it and some don't. THE DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND -- At the Inner Circle.