Romulus, My Father is based on the memoir by one of its lead characters. Raimond Gaita was in his adult life when he wrote his book. In the film, he is still a child. Portrayed here by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Romulus, My Father tells the story of the lives of a few people. That's about it. There's little plot and the themes are all ones we've seen before. The performances are really good, but the entire film is rendered almost unwatchable because of how it was put together.
I don't know who to blame for this major fault though. It could come down to the fact that this is Richard Roxburgh's début film as a director, or the blame could lie mostly on the editor. Maybe both are at fault. Regardless, the end result is one of the most poorly paced films I can remember seeing. This isn't a narrative problem; it's a problem of translating a perfectly workable story onto the screen.
The primary issue that Romulus, My Father has is in the way almost every scene functions. The majority of the scenes are far too short, and because of this brief length, fail to evoke any response from the audience. They also end up not advancing any of the characters or even helping the plot move along. They become pointless when not doing anything, and because of this make the movie feel longer than it should. Yes, I'm aware that I'm saying that short scenes are making it feel too long. I truly believe this though.
There are many moments in the film where we'll watch a scene for a minute, waiting for something to happen. Nothing will. Then, we'll cut to another scene, or we'll fade to black for a moment. The following scene will often have a similar problem. As will the next. But then we'll get to a scene of real importance -- one that functions and is engaging -- and we'll actually get something out of the film. Then it'll be cut short, and the cycle will begin anew.
This is ultimately the only big problem that Romulus, My Father, has. Everything else is actually really well done, and had there been a lot of point to the majority of the movie, these elements would have shined through even more. The acting is great, the story, or at least, what little there is of it, is interesting, and even the cinematography is really nice. It's a beautiful film to look at, but then again, it's not hard to photograph an environment that looks this nice.
Like I said earlier, the plot follows the lives of three characters. It is mostly told through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy, Raimond (Smit-McPhee). His father, Romulus (Eric Bana) is a good person who loves his son very much. His mother, Christine (Franka Potente), has an on-and-off relationship with Romulus, and may or may not be seeing other men -- despite the fact that the two are still married. The plot is kind of weak, although this might just be due to how difficult it is to focus on, thanks to the way the film is presented to us.
Because of the way we are constantly bombarded by pointless scenes -- or at least, scenes that are rendered pointless due to being too short to make a point -- almost all of the emotion that the film attempts to give the audience is lost. There are many moments in the film where I should have cared a lot more than I did, but because I felt disconnected from these characters, I couldn't bring myself to feel anything. In a drama, this is a problem.
The strong cast almost makes up for these flaws. I've been critical of Kodi Smit-McPhee in the past, but here he shows that he has real range. Eric Bana as his father also gives a great performance. Franka Potente is less stellar, showing less range than both of her male counterparts, but this may be partly due to how she was written. She's often gloomy, and while that can work, some levity would be nice once in a while too.
You would think that there would be something to come away with after you watch Romulus, My Father, but that wasn't the case. Most dramas give you something to think about or something you can learn while watching it. Its characters learn lessons, but they don't get passed on to the audience. Once again, a disconnect with the characters comes back to strike the film down a notch. It appears to us that Gaita had a rough childhood, but just showing us scene after scene of negativity doesn't leave us feeling anything -- not even anguish.
I was really prepared to like Romulus, My Father. On paper, it seemed like something I would really enjoy. It has a good cast, has an emotionally involving story, and is set against a beautiful landscape. The execution, however, was really poor. The actors still do a good job, and it's difficult to ruin a picture-perfect backdrop, but the way the story is presented takes away anything that the film is trying to give its audience. We can't feel for these characters, and we can't learn anything from their actions, because the way the story is told makes that too difficult for us.