Suffused with melancholy, “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” focuses on a generation of Central European refugees who forged a new life for themselves in an Australia far less tolerant than it is today. Pic is a gentle, at times poetic, essentially European film that is likely to be of particular emotional appeal to audiences able to relate to its dislocated characters. Nevertheless, the film will be a tough sell, and may prove an unduly downbeat experience for some; critical support will be essential to alert auds to the qualities of this brittle, and at times overreaching, family saga. Reaction at the Berlin film fest, where pic competed, was decidedly mixed.
The film is the work of first time director Richard Flanagan, better known as a novelist (“Death of a River Guide”); in fact, he turned his screenplay for “Clapping” into his second novel, which was published in Oz earlier this year. Flanagan, who lives in Tasmania, Australia’s island state, writes poetically about the landscape and the people he knows, and a good deal of the special quality of his work is transferred to film, no doubt with much help and advice from producer Rolf De Heer (director of “Bad Boy Bubby” and “The Quiet Room.”)
A somber drama about the difficulties experienced by the children of immigrants, pic is structured around the return to Tasmania’s capi-tal, Hobart, after a 20-year absence, of 36 year old Sonja Buloh (Kerry Fox). Unmarried and pregnant, and planning an abortion on her return to Sydney, Sonja has come to reconnect with her father, Bojan (Kristof Kaczmarek), from whom she fled as a teenager after he beat her in a drunken rage. She finds Bojan an embittered alcoholic, living with painful memories of the past.
Flashbacks to Sonja’s childhood illuminate these two lives. Bojan and his wife, Maria (Melita Jurisic), were migrants from Slovenia, where they suffered terribly during the war, and Bojan is still hostile to the Catholic Church, which he blames for welcoming the Germans into his country. Maria, who is only briefly seen, walks out on 3 year old Sonja one wintry night and, as far as the girl is concerned, disappears forever.
Bojan, who, along with thousands of other “wog reffos” has found employment with Tasmania’s vast hydroelectric company, is often forced to work in remote parts of the damp and ruggedly beautiful island, and so is unable to care for the child, who is looked after by friends of the family. But when, at age 8, she’s almost molested by the bitter Picotti (Jacek Koman), Bojan finds a job in Hobart and cares for his daughter himself.
A chance of happiness with Jean (Essie Davis), a kindly young woman who owns an apple orchard, presents itself to Bojan, but Sonja’s hostility toward her father’s lover puts an end to the affair. Bojan, increasingly bitter and increasingly reliant on drink, finally drives his daughter away.
By confining the narrative to Sonja’s childhood and her return, the film limits itself somewhat, but “The Sound of One Hand Clapping” delves insightfully into the refugee experience. Flanagan sensitively creates a world where old traditions, good as well as bad, are reduced to memories, where such a basic asset as your own language is no longer useful, where the bitterness of the past must be forgotten if there’s to be a future. The future may be brighter for the next generation, though Sonja — whose life in Sydney is unexplored — seems hardly happier than her father.
The outstanding performance here is that of Polish thesp Kaczmarek, in his first major screen role, as the tormented Bojan. Although seen from the perspective of the daughter, this is really the father’s story. Fox is merely adequate as the adult Sonja, but the character allows for little shading or depth. Scenes in which Fox has to play Sonja at the age of 16 embarrassingly fail to work.
Given pretty much a free hand to bring his vision to the screen as few novelists are, writer-director Flanagan has done a generally solid job, though there’s little variation in the generally gloomy tone of the drama. Technical credits are pristine, with cinematographer Martin McGrath evocatively capturing the damp, chilly atmosphere of Australia’s smallest state. Notable, too, is the beautiful music score of Cezary Skubiszewski.