Children of the Revolution
by Jon Bastian
Satiric, cynic, lyric, and searing.
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Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s humungous 1975 The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a dark satire that takes every conspiracy theory of its time to the extreme, has never been made into a movie, and probably never will be. It was adapted into an over ten hour stage play at about the same time Jim Jones was serving up the Kool-Aid to his followers. But it will never be produced as a film by a major American studio, nor could an indie production do it justice.
I bring up Illuminatus! By way of introduction to the 1996 Australian comedy Children of the Revolution. While much smaller in scope than the Wilson-Shea novel, fans of the book will feel like they’ve wandered into a related universe. Indeed, at least one character echoes Tobias Knight, the trilogy’s “first pentuple agent in the history of espionage.”
Beginning in the present day, we are informed of a little known event in history - a near civil war in Australia, started by one man, Joe Welch (Richard Roxburgh, Moulin Rouge). Welch, in turn, blames his mother, and we jump back in time to 1951, where we meet Sydney resident Joan Fraser (Judy Davis, Naked Lunch), an unapologetic communist who’s given to standing up and screaming “Bullshit” at McCarthyesque propaganda newsreels at the local cinema, much to the consternation of her boyfriend, Zachary Welch (Geoffrey Rush, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers), who perhaps finds her outbursts a bit embarrassing, but keeps his mouth shit because he loves her.
We catch up with Joan and Zachary on the eve of a countrywide referendum to determine whether Communism should be outlawed. Her campaigning against the measure, as well as her adoring letters to “Uncle Joe” Stalin, draw the attention of David Hoyle (Sam Neill, Wimbledon), who informs her that it might be a good idea for her to get out of politics. However, the ballot measure is narrowly defeated and soon thereafter, Joan is invited by Stalin himself to attend the winter 1952 World Communist Party Congress in Moscow. Against the advice of everyone around her, Joan heads to the USSR and this is where the film really takes off. Her meeting with Stalin (F. Murray Abraham, Th13teen Ghosts) is both surreal and romantic, although it ends unexpectedly, seeing as how Stalin winds up dead after Joan pays a visit to his bedroom. Also unexpectedly in attendance is… well, I don’t want to give too much away, but somebody from back home makes an appearance and we soon learn that they aren’t quite who they seem to be.
When Joan returns to Australia, she quickly accepts Zachary’s marriage proposal, seeing as how she now happens to be pregnant. The rest of the film follows Joan and her son, Joe, as he grows up through the turbulent 60s and 70s, and it becomes more and more clear, through both his looks and his behavior, that his father may just happen to be a certain dead dictator…
Children of the Revolution is loopy fun that manages to hit the right edge of satire while taking its situations and characters in dead earnest, although it’s the characters that make the film. Davis is dead-on as Joan, a woman who is utterly sincere in her politics but incapable of accepting the truth about Stalin’s brutality, even when the news comes from her own son. She also carries the film, as we follow her for over forty years. Think of her as sort of a leftwing Australian version of Garp’s mother.
Incidents double back on each other as well, with events from the distant past having a sudden, terrible impact on the present — as when a former KGB officer discovers that he personally executed the grandparents of his soon-to-be daughter-in-law. And Joe manages to turn out exactly the opposite of his mother and yet no different. Thanks to her political activism during his childhood, he develops a fetish for jails and being arrested. At first, it’s a childhood hobby, but when he’s a hormone-laden teenager getting hauled away by a female constable at an anti-Vietnam protest… well, he manages to turn the process of getting arrested into a strange courtship.
One of the unstated points of the film — and a common theme in the aforementioned Illuminatus! — is that extremism of any kind erases any political distinctions. Hitler may have been to the far right and Stalin to the far left, but each one of them was so far off their respective wing that they wound up meeting in the common ground of totalitarian dictator. Joan is blind to this phenomenon, accusing the moderate Australian government of being fascists just because they’re anti-Communist, and this blindness winds up being her tragic flaw. She can’t quite handle it when her son grows up to fall in love with a representative of the police, i.e. a living symbol (to her) of fascism. Even though she does get along with her daughter-in-law, she doesn’t get along with the idea of what she represents and she can’t agree with her son’s politics, never realizing that they’re no different than those of the man she admired so much, Josef Stalin.
And all the while, Children of the Revolution is a remarkably funny film, perhaps because it keeps its comedy grounded in reality. The sequence in which Joan meets Stalin (indeed, all of Stalin’s screen time) is a gut-buster precisely because it keeps in mind both the realities of bureaucratic life under a crazed dictator and the exigencies of an older man trying to impress a pretty young woman at all costs (while being completely oblivious to her star-struck state). Likewise, the film’s characters have strong needs and behave with self-consistency — even when there are hints that they may not quite be who they seemed. For, by film’s end, while it’s never explicitly stated, we get very strong hints that even Joan and Joe may be different people deep inside than whom they play at in public. It makes for a very deep experience by the last reel, one that will bear a repeat viewing to see just how these hidden facets were a part of the story all along.
I definitely recommend Children of the Revolution as well worth seeking out and watching. It’s a brisk, hilarious 101 minutes that packs more comedy and more meaning than half a dozen Hollywood star vehicles.
Jon Bastian is a writer and playwright living in Los Angeles.
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