Parallels Commentary

Made for a mere $300,000 in just 18 days, Parallels (1980) is a remarkably good film for the times in which it was produced. These were the early days of filmmaking in Alberta, where writers, producers, directors and many of the actors were learning their craft. The movie used an all-Canadian cast and crew. The screenplay is interesting – the audience is never quite sure how the issues will be resolved, but is intrigued to follow the plot to the end; David Fox (Father Robert Dane) gives a very good performance as a priest with a past, who now questions his vocation.

Written by Jaron Summers, who has made his career as a writer for television, Parallels reveals the intersecting lives of people who have grown up together in a small town. Robert (David Fox) and Judith (Judith Mabey) were childhood sweethearts and then lovers. But Robert was confused about what he wanted to do with his life; convinced that he had a vocation, he left Judith for the Church. Judith went to Europe, eventually married an Italian and had a son. It was not a happy marriage. They separated and the husband was subsequently killed in a car accident. Now, with a teen-aged son, Stephen (Gerard Lepage), Judith has left her successful career as a magazine editor and returned to her home town, supposedly to write a novel.

 

Stephen is enrolled in the local Catholic boys high school, which is run by the now Fr. Dane. The boy does not fit in, hates the town, and resents his mother, whom he blames for almost everything. Judith is drinking a lot of wine, but not writing much. Robert is studiously avoiding Judith. All this changes when Stephen begins to have trouble with Philip (David Ferry), the son of a prominent family. Philip sees Stephen as a threat to his dominance of the other boys at school. What is worse, Stephen seems to have stolen Philip’s girl, the fiercely independent photography student, Claire. Philip begins to taunt him and finally tries to kill him in a midnight fencing duel in the school gym.

There are some clever moments in this movie, the best of them being the interwoven shots of Fr. Dane out jogging at night as he wrestles with his spiritual demons while Stephen and Philip circle one another in the darkened gym. There is little to see – just the occasional flash of white or silver. Schoenberg cuts back and forth from the regular breathing of the runner and the sound of his shoes pounding the pavement, to the thin, metallic-sliding of the épées as the fencers circle one another in the dark. The tension is increased as the laboured breathing and foot-pounding increase. In contrast to the lethally quiet calculation of the duel, it makes for a very effective scene, which is rounded off nicely by the heavy breathing of Stephen as he later runs to a phone to call for an ambulance.

What saves Parallels from being yet another movie about teen-aged angst is the parallel plot strand of Judith and Robert trying to understand their relationship with one another, and a third plot strand in which Robert struggles with his vocation as a priest. This is about as much thematic freight as a movie might successfully handle. But, for good measure, there is a fourth plot strand about the Church itself being at a crossroads. Bishop Teller (Walter Kaasa) is struggling to keep the school alive in an increasingly secular world. He gives Fr. Dane fair warning that he simply can’t tolerate his indecision, as it is affecting the viability of the school. If Teller represents the past, Robert’s friend, Fr. Clifford (Howard Dallin), represents the future of the Church; he is quite willing to adapt and serve the community in the ways it wants to be served.

The failure of Parallels is in adequately marrying these related strands about self-doubt and identity. With over 30 years of experience behind him, Director Schoenberg now admits that he was too inexperienced in 1980 to find the heart of the movie. Yet, he is proud of having made a “respectable film” that was not an American clone during the early days of indigenous Alberta filmmaking. And, he is grateful that the film was made when it was. Six months after filming, interest rates sky-rocketed to well over 24%, which dealt a body blow to filmmaking for some years.

Parallels was produced during the Lougheed era in Alberta, when arts and culture received strong support. Director Mark Schoenberg recalls that, in the mid 1970s, he had been working in theatre and as a film reviewer, when the CBC chose nine theatre directors to send to Toronto for training in how to direct film and television. A few weeks after completing the course, CBC hired him to direct Country Joy, a soap opera. The 1970s was a fruitful time for the burgeoning film industry in Alberta because investors could avail themselves of a 100% federal government tax write-off (the Capital Cost Allowance through the Canadian Film Development Corporation).  This had brought doctors, dentists and lawyers into the heady world of filmmaking as new investors. In effect, they couldn’t lose. What that financial incentive did was to present opportunities for professional development for directors, actors, cinematographers and others, who would otherwise have had to migrate to large urban centres or to the United States for work.

Although too late for Parallels, Premier Peter Lougheed established the Alberta Motion Picture Development Corporation in 1981. For 15 years, until 1996, AMPDC acted as a lender to filmmakers, gradually developing an Alberta film industry worth $150 million in production and employing over 1200 people. The Klein administration, which came into power that year, cut the program entirely; this misguided political decision nearly killed the film industry in Alberta. Just two years later, in 1998, that industry had shrunk to a mere $12 million.

Evelyn Ellerman