In the U.S., if you said “Bastoy Boys,” you’d think it was a new boy band on MTV, but in Norway, the name brings up a shameful episode in penal history. The Bastoy Boys Home was a correctional facility based on Bastoy Island. Marius Holst’s 2010 pensively moving film “The King of Devil’s Island” (“Kongen av Bastoy”) is based on a true incident.
Although now a minimum-security prison for adults, from 1900 to 1953, it was a prison colony for boys between 9 and 21. These were supposedly hopeless boys and the harsh environment, discipline and isolation were supposed to beat these boys into good citizens. In 1915, about 30 inmates staged an uprising which included setting a barn on fire. The military came in to quell the disturbance.
Dennis Magnusson’s script is sparse and heartbreaking. A young man Erling (Benjamin Helstad) is a new inmate. He talks about the sea and being a harpooner and how it takes a whale a whole day to die. After defeating a whale, facing another man down isn’t so hard. He become C19.
The much thinner Ivar comes with him from the mainland to the island on the same boat. They turn over their personal belongings. Their hair is chopped off. They are told no smoking or gambling. No talking during work details or meals. Both boys are assigned to C Barracks.
The governor, Bestyreren, has already advised barrack leader, C1 (Trond Nilssen), to teach these new boys the rules. If C1 keeps his company under control, he’ll be free to leave this island in a matter of weeks. But wise movie-goers already know, that isn’t going to happen.
Yet Magnusson’s script has a few surprises. Our man C19 isn’t just a guy who needs negative attention, he has a strong concept of right and wrong and he can’t stand down when he senses injustice. He soon realizes that C5, Ivar (Magnus Langlete), is being sexually abused by the dorm master Brathen (Kristoffer Joner) and becomes the catalyst for both C1 and the island’s governor Bestyreren (Stellan Skarsgard) to question Brathen.
One man takes is as a matter of honor to look for justice for his charges and another man discretely looks the other way. You can easily guess who is who. Bestyreren wonders out loud why a man such as Brathen has not moved on. Bestyreren’s optimism of hard labor and even harder punishment will beat the bad of the boys’ perhaps allows him to consider that another hardship–one more emotional than physically painful, can’t be that bad. Yet John Andreas Andersen’s cinematography that casts everything in a cold blue light, suggests otherwise.
You can easily see how scandals such as this are swept under the rug in churches worldwide and even schools until something forces the issue. In this case, it is Erling. Erling himself wasn’t always kind to C5.
The revolt grows slowly, almost eerily as the boys move toward a chaotic common goal. Some of the boys greedily eat food from the pantry; we already understand why after seeing what the boys are given to eat while on forest detail. Others burn down the barn. They allow the governor to leave unscathed on a boat, but soon the armed forces from the mainland are called in and the boys are hunted down and not all of them survive.
Why are the boys there? Because their mothers were gypsies or prostitutes? Because their parents didn’t want them? Because they were mentally slow?
How utterly sad that we throw away the smiles and laughter of childhood in hopes of making dutiful, grim adults. Where is the love?
Currently, “The King of Devil’s Island” is not scheduled to screen in Pasadena. It opened today, 3 February 2012, at the Laemmle Music Hall. You can pre-order on Amazon (10 April 2012 release).