Green lightDirector Robert Connolly expands his genre-hopping oeuvre from corporate thriller (The Bank) and down-and-out drama (Three Dollars) to electrifying political sizzlers with Balibo, a wartime exposé destined to shock, shame and compel Australian audiences.

It is the curtain raising opening night feature of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, marking the third terrific Australian film of 2009 to premiere at a prestigious festival (the others are Mary and Max at Sundance and Samson & Delilah at Cannes).

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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 conveys a harsh and unspeculative tone.

There is barely a trace of sentimentality 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 “what are we doing in this sh*t hole.”

Where the screenplay, penned by Connolly and veteran Australian playwright David Williamson, finds elbow room for characterisations is in development of 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 headhunts the grumpy, world-weary East, proposing he head the national news agency. 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. Gritty on-the-ground handheld cinematography felt like a must from the get-go; this is not a film conducive to classical framing. The cameras bob, jitter and pulsate, underscoring the steady realism of Connolly’s direction.

Oscar Isaac is charismatic as Romas-Horta in a flattering though nevertheless believable portrayal. But it’s Anthony LaPaglia who steals the show as Roger East, in easily one of the actor’s most affecting performances. LaPaglia inhabits the role, his face a mat of grim determination, his eyes like they’re underlined by the shadows of death.

If Balibo’s characterisations are light on the ground, it’s for a good reason. LaPaglia’s tormented face will be etched into the audience’s memories and the experience of watching the film will hang like lead weights.

In one of Balibo’s many high-impact scenes two simple words – “I’m Australian” – take on harrowing connotations. Chalk this dynamite Aussie exposé as a must-see, and remember to take a cold shower afterwards.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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