Standing like outcrops of bone on the crest of a grassy hill shorn dramatically by a rocky cliff plunging into the sea, the tombstones of Waverley Cemetery in Sydney’s eastern suburb of Bronte make for a dramatic dramatic backdrop of the opening scene of Greek Australian writer/director Kosta Nikas’ debut feature, Sacred Heart.
Shot from above at a dizzying angle, the camera swoops down towards two figures standing sentinel by a fresh grave. David Field, the stalwart of Australian cinema who has appeared in everything from Chopper to Last Cab to Darwin via David Michôd’s The Rover, plays a stoic priest while relative newcomer Kipan Rothbury is distraught young widower Robert, mourning the recent loss of his wife and child and lashing out.
This widescreen opening narrows to a tight two-hander as the men face grief, tested faith and unfurled secrets together in Robert’s claustrophobic home. “I wanted to start wide and then the film ends like a funnel, coming to a very narrow point where everything comes undone,” Nikas says. “For about 80 per cent of the film, it’s two characters sitting in a room without special effects, blood and gore. It’s a real test to see whether that dialogue is good enough to draw people in and get them to forget where they are, in the metaphysical space that Robert’s house essentially becomes.”
Taking its first bow at the Shanghai International Film Festival, the modest budget independent Sacred Heart will have its Australian debut at the 23rd Greek Film Festival.
Watch Sacred Heart trailer:
Growing up in Sydney before spending some time and completing his army service in Greece, Nikas, who had a dialogue coach and screenplay translator role on the TV adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, wanted to interrogate the human condition, a lofty ambition for his first film.
“I’ve always been fascinated by this expectation we have in society for perfection, which I find an arrogant presumption,” he says. “What, a priest can’t sin, a cop can’t break the law? We hope they don’t, but to expect perfection from people removes the possibility of these grand things that make humanity beautiful, like redemption, forgiveness and maturity, learning from one’s lessons.”
Both the priest and Robert are certainly flawed, and it’s this fallibility that intrigues Nikas, as well the occasionally contradictory nature of a secular society and religion. “You can go to church, confess a heinous crime and you get your forgiveness from god, but I think you should still be accountable to society,” he says. “I’m not criticising the church, I don’t find any ideology borne out of humanity perfect, but like any other institutions they have to grow and evolve and correct themselves, and when they don’t, as we’ve seen with recent scandals, society will.”
“To expect perfection from people removes the possibility of these grand things that make humanity beautiful, like redemption, forgiveness and maturity, learning from one’s lessons.”
Field gets to cut loose in a meaty role as the priest whose faith may not be a strong as it at first appears, who becomes locked in a sort of biblical tussle with the angry Robert. Just who is the devil and who is the angel in this scenario is blurred. “I loved the idea of having an Aussie legend and very seasoned actor, considering I’m relatively new in the game,” Nikas says of casting Field, after his producer was forced to drop out due to ill health while Nikas was in the middle of a masters in interactive and digital media. “It is a bit unnerving and you feel a tad insecure when you have to direct someone who’s been doing this as a living for a very long time and is an award-winning actor who has directed himself.”
Field helmed the 2009 crime drama The Combination starring Firass Dirani, George Basha and Clare Bowen, with Basha joining him on directorial duties for the upcoming sequel. “He put me at ease from the get go and we worked like a charm,” Nikas says. “I’m grateful that he participated and gave an amazing performance that really made this film come together alongside Kipan, who was wonderful as well.”
Acknowledging it was tough raising the funds as writer/director and producer, the candid Nikas wishes there was more support for smaller independent films doing it tough in Australia, but he’s been emboldened by the experience of shooting Sacred Heart, with more stories to share.
“I love the big picture stuff,” he says. “I don’t like cinema that’s preachy or that spoon feeds. I respect my audience and I hope people will be able to engage with that.”
Sacred Heart screens at the Greek Film Festival from October 11.