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Australia 2015
Directed by
Kosta Nikas
91 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Sacred Heart

Synopsis: A grieving man, Robert (Kipan Rothbury), faces the age-old battle between God and The Devil in his attempt to come to terms with the recent accidental death of his wife and unborn child.

No doubt in response to commercial realities Australian film in the past couple of years has moved markedly away from “art”, oft-decried as “miserablist”, cinema and more towards the safety of genre film-making. John Jarratt’s recent StalkHer comes to mind as a exception, albeit an unsuccessful one.  Now comes Kosta Nikas’s Sacred Heart, an independently produced debut feature that has a good deal in common with Jarratt’s film, both being attempts to explore the dark side of the psyche by setting in conflict two protagonists in a closely confined setting and very ambiguous circumstances.  But where StalkHer got quickly stuck in a conceptual rut and stayed there, Sacred Heart is a courageously adventurous and intensely probing film that ranges across a broad spectrum of themes and one that largely brings off its ambitions.

Being evidently a very personal project, Sacred Heart is not a film that offers easy rewards. From the opening titles which appear over a long fly-over across a coastal foreshore and comes to rest in a cemetery to the accompaniment of Matt Lord’s percussive score there is a foreboding tonality established but no immediate signs to orient us to the film we are about to see. Indeed disorientation is very much the order of the day as Robert rails against the tragedy which has befallen him and the failure of his religion to offer any compelling insight into it.  The opening gambit in the journey he is about to go on is his blunt rejection of the meaningless verbal consolation offered him by the priest (David Field) officiating at his wife’s burial. From there we accompany Robert on a bitter odyssey, the centerpiece of which is a long existential face-off between Robert and The Priest held in a heavily-curtained living room.

Kosta Nikas’s script initially feels a little too contrived particularly when Robert talks aloud to God but once he enters into a colloquy with the priest and progressively the stakes rise as both men push each other relentlessly to strip themselves of their bad faith it becomes compelling stuff with Nikas, with the help of editor Rishi Shukla, cutting away from the verbal tussle and giving us a different and privileged perspective on Robert who turns out to be a good less the blameless victim that he presents himself to be. The strength of Nikas’s script is its frankness in presenting Robert’s contradictions and failings, not to mention the less surprising ones of The Priest, and the yawning chasm that lies for both of them (for us all, that is) between the public and the private.  Rothbury, who has worked a little in television and short films, gives a first class performance as the younger man in crisis.  A veteran of the Australian small and big screens, David Field is not an actor who easily assumes the role of a man of God (in an ideal world Geoffrey Rush would have filled the part) but he turns in an engaging performance, particularly in his “human” rather than priestly guise.

A clever twist late in the film recalibrates the until-then apparently straight-forward plot and moves everything that we have seen onto a different plane. But then Nikas pushes it one stop further, turning it away from a more typically European interior perspective and towards a Hollywood exterior focus.  For me this was a mistake both because it exceeds the natural end-point of the film, the final encounter between Robert and The Priest, and more importantly because it replaces ambiguity and uncertainty with confusion, the final scenes not being well-enough seeded earlier in the film to make sense. Still, it’s perplexing enough to make one see the film again so in one sense that’s a good thing.

But hey, aside from that, Sacred Heart is commendable for an unusually articulate and boldly original script that as writer-director Mr Nikas has brought to impressive fruition with evidently modest means.




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