Feature Lost Classic

Lost Classic: Our Father, the Devil (Ellie Foumbi, 2021)

“We all have a past, but it doesn’t define us” one character says in Ellie Foumbi’s Our Father the Devil (2021). The film holds this assertion under close scrutiny. The story focuses on Marie, played by Babetida Sadjo, a Guinean immigrant living and working in rural France at a sleepy retirement home. She maintains a productive, if a little guarded, routine of working with the residents and spending time with some close friends. This is upended by the arrival of a priest at the home. While the rest of staff and residents quickly take kindly to him, Marie privately swears that he is the warlord responsible for the murder of her family and razing of her village, decades earlier in Guinea. Faced with an impossible situation, she is forced to reconcile her tragic past with her quaint present.

The film features strong supporting performances from Jennifer Tchiakpe as Marie’s best friend/coworker Nadia and Souléymane Sy Savané as the mysterious priest in question, but undoubtedly rests on the shoulders of Sadjo’s outstanding work. So much of the movie focuses on her face and yet so much of what Marie goes through is internal, her dilemma far too shocking and complex for anyone around her to understand or relate to. Sadjo finds subtle ways to show this isolation, such as through consciously averting eye contact with people, especially as the film goes on. And on the filmmaking side, the cinematography helps build this isolation by often framing Sadjo in extreme close ups with shallow depths of field, obscuring both the people and backgrounds around her.

Foumbi, a first time feature director, makes bold choices that establish her as an artist to watch out for. It’s easy to imagine how a filmmaker could turn a premise like this into, say, a cold, stylized revenge story, or hold the question of the priest’s past over the audience’s head for the entire film; Foumbi chooses a much more unique path, taking the film into uncharted waters of complicated ethical and emotional questions, and maintaining the focus on the detailed and extremely personal. We see not just how Marie’s dilemma plays out in terms of what to do about the priest, but also how his arrival isolates her from those closest to her. Suddenly, movie nights with friends or efforts to get closer with her new love interest Arnaud, played by Franck Saurel, feel like activities impossibly far from her life. It is harrowing to watch Marie try to move through these sorts of situations that require an amount of casual happiness, and how that struggle creates an intense cognitive dissonance within the context of her situation. What would any of us say or do in a situation like this?

It is a rare and risky thing for a film to ask such big questions, and even rarer for a film to continue to look at those questions directly in the eye up until the moment it ends; so many films set up interesting dilemmas only to provide resolutions that negate their complexity, or on the flip side, opt out of resolving anything at all. Some find a way between these poles, acknowledging that in our lives things are always resolving and unresolved at once. They satisfy our need for things to happen as well as our lived knowledge that things never just end. Recent examples of this type of film include Nikole Beckwith’s Together, Together (2021) and Todd Field’s Tár (2022), very different stories within very different contexts but nevertheless both effective in creating endings that do both the questions of the film and the viewer justice, or maybe find a way to reveal that those things can be the same. Our Father, the Devil, which culminates in one of the most emotional moments on film I have seen in a long time, is one of these movies.

By Oscar O'Neill

Oscar O'Neill is an artist and writer living in Chicago, Illinois. He loves to talk about films with really anyone who will listen.

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