Director Robert Connolly advances his oeuvre from corporate thriller (The Bank) and down-and-out drama (Three Dollars) to the realm of electrifying political sizzlers with Balibo, a tight-as-a-snare-drum wartime exposé destined to shock, shame and compel Australian audiences. It’s the curtain raising opening night feature of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, marking the third near-brilliant Australian film of 2009 to premiere at a prestigious festival, the other two being Mary and Max at Sundance and Samson & Delilah at Cannes.
Based on the true story of five Aussie journalists (aka The Balibo Five) who were murdered by Indonesian militia in the eponymous East Timorese town in 1975, and a sixth, Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), who endeavoured to find them and tell their story, the film is faithful to facts and conveys a harsh and unspeculative tone. Balibo feels so convincing the supporting cast, all of whom contribute solid and authentic performances, find themselves constrained by the screenplay’s matter-o-fact authenticity. There is barely a trace of sentiments and very little shooting the breeze: no forlorn letters to mum at home, no soapy monologues about returning to their girlfriends, no quivering moments of “crap, what are we doing in this sh*t hole.” The film of course is infinitely more credible because of it.
Where the screenplay, penned by Connolly and vet playwright David Williamson, finds elbow room for characterisations is in the two central characters: East and a young quixotic revolutionary, José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac), who years later will go on to become President of East Timor. During the build up to the ’75 Indonesian invasion Romas-Horta head hunts the grumpy, world-weary East, proposing he head the national news agency, but East isn’t interested until he learns of the five missing and suspected dead journos from Channel 7 and Channel 9. They strike a deal: Romas-Horta will take East to Balibo, retracing the steps of the journalists, and East will accept the job offer.
The story cuts between time frames, presenting quick bursts of the journalists’ story. Their presence remains high-impact throughout, cursed by the inevitability of their fates. Gritty on-the-ground handheld cinematography was a must from the get-go; this is not a film conducive to classical framing and the cameras subtlety bob, jitter and pulsate, underscoring the steady realism Connolly’s direction engenders. Connolly strips all the fat from the bone, exemplifying highly disciplined multifaceted filmmaking.
Oscar Isaac is charismatic as a vitalized and peppy Romas-Horta; it’s a flattering but nevertheless believable portrayal. But it’s Anthony LaPaglia who steals the show as Roger East in easily one of his most rousing performances, perhaps surpassing even his voice work as a penguin in Happy Feet (but let’s not get carried away). LaPaglia darkly inhabits the role, his face a podgy mat of grim determination, his eyes looking like they’re underlined by the shadows of death. It’s a great performance.
And Balibo is knock out stuff: taut as all hell, a stick of dynamite lit and tossed into the audience’s faces. If the characterisations are light on the ground, it’s for a good reason. LaPaglia’s tormented face will be savagely etched into one’s memories and the experience of watching this film will hang like lead weights in your head for a long time afterwards. Two simple words – “I’m Australian” – will take on harrowing new connotations, viewers simultaneously confronted with both their meaning and their futility. Chalk Balibo down as a must-see and take a cold shower afterwards.
Balibo is the opening night film at MIFF (which commences July 24) and will be released theatrically August 13.