Australia offers few sights as sublime as that of David Gulpilil. From the wordless aboriginal youth who led children out of the wilderness back to civilization in Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout” (1971) to his appearance in Rolf de Heer’s “Charlie’s Country” (2013) as the weathered, unreconstructed old man trying to escape civilization and find the wilderness that is his home, his sculpted features and lean figure possess the screen like an archetype. Co-written by Gulpilil with de Heer, “Charlie’s Country” doesn’t delve as deeply into the mystery of aboriginal culture as does Roeg’s film, but it does embrace more of its humanity.
To call Charlie’s habitation “civilization” exaggerates its status. A corrugated shack with only three walls, filled with his shabby belongings, it almost serves as a proscenium displaying the debasement of a people. It lies within a haphazard community where Charlie, a once respected hunter and upholder of the cultural traditions (he danced for the Queen of England, years ago, at the opening of the Sydney Opera House), shares with his similarly benighted neighbors the stingy dole and unhealthful rations provide by the “white man’s” government.
Fed up with the diet of processed food, Charlie and his old friend Black Pete (Peter Djigirr) decide to sneak off to the bush and hunt for some real meat. These scenes and much of the first half of the film are played for rueful laughs.
Charlie and Black Pete drive off to the hunting ground in the latter’s Land Rover, a battered relic so jerry-rigged (the gas tank is a giant plastic bottle tied to the hood) it wouldn’t be out of place in “Mad Max.” They spot a water buffalo, chase it into the bush, and their struggle to bag the beast, heard off-screen, is deadpan, aural, slapstick comedy. They tie the carcass to the already overburdened hood of the car, only to have the police pull them over and confiscate the meat, the guns, and the car.
Undaunted, Charlie makes himself a traditional spear, but when that is confiscated, too, things stop being funny. Charlie decides that the only way he can reclaim his country is to wander into the wilderness and find it.
What follows seems like an uncharacteristically brilliant episode of the reality TV show “Naked and Afraid,” except Charlie is neither naked nor afraid, but is alone and not as young as he used to be. The land, which he describes as “his supermarket,” does provide for him, but also batters his body and soul. This walkabout ends less dramatically and not as tragically as the one in Roeg’s film, but perhaps with a greater poignancy. And Gulpilil, four decades of hard living later, is as magnificent as ever.
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Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.