Politics and melodrama do not mix very well in movies – at least, not for certain sophisticated audiences.
I remember, years ago, watching Samuel Fuller's White Dog (1982), the tale of a "racist" dog trained to kill Afro-Americans, at the Melbourne Film Festival. The audience around me howled with derisive laughter at this piece of pulp fiction. How dare a film on a serious issue be so lurid and naive?
Dead Heart is also going to have that effect on some audiences. It is a shameless melodrama about the conflict of Aboriginal and settler cultures. Everything about it, beginning with the title, is drawn in bold, expressionistic strokes: transgressive passions, payback killings, the omnipresent heat and dust.
As befits a melodrama, there is an original sin at the centre of all the trouble. In a small, divided community near Alice Springs, frisky young Tony (Aaron Pedersen) makes love to unhappily married Kate (Angie Milliken) on a sacred, tribal site meant for men only. This act of inter-racial sex – unsubtly intercut with the spectacle of dogs rutting in a church – blows the town sky high.
Stories like this depend on stark, Manichean oppositions – black vs. white law, violence vs. reason, spirituality vs. materialism – but also characters who try their best to inhabit a place in-between these extremes. These mediating characters are film's best: pastor David (Ernie Dingo), police aide Billy (Lafe Charlton), and even the bullish cop Ray (Bryan Brown).
Writer-director Nick Parsons (adapting his own play) takes an utterly unselfconscious approach to this material; like Sam Fuller, he seems not particularly fussed about tastefulness or political correctness. The directness of Dead Heart is disarming: racial conflict is a painful spear in the leg or chest; fun is a gang of guys playing cards or jiving to Daddy Cool's "Eagle Rock" in the desert; and social comment is David's plaintive cry – "I'm not a blackfella or a whitefella, I'm just ... a fella!"
I warmed to this film. In many respects it takes us back to the era of Charles Chauvel's interracial soap Jedda (1955) – a movie that had to wait some thirty years for a little middle-class respect. But Dead Heart's closest neighbour in the annals of Australian melodrama is Tim Burstall's fine adaptation of Morris West's The Naked Country (1984) – a movie dismissed in its day as trash and buried ever since.
© Adrian Martin November 1996