Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Ellie Foumbi
Writer: Ellie Foumbi
Stars: Babetida Sadjo, Souleymane Sy Savane, Jennifer Tchiakpe
By Calum Cooper
“Our Father, The Devil” (2023) is a haunting look into the lengths and limits of forgiveness. A stellar vehicle for acting and directing talents, the questions it poses have no easy answers and the nuances are as grim as the potential outcomes. It is a riveting feature from director Ellie Foumbi.
Marie (Babetida Sadjo) is an African refugee who has recently found her feet in the south of France as the head chef to a care home. Although she is friendly enough, Marie mostly keeps to herself, prefering her secluded home in the mountains over the night life of the town she works in. Yet her quiet existence is uprooted by the arrival of the new village priest Patrick (Souleymane Sy Savane). To her co-workers and service users, Patrick is a charismatic and pleasant man spreading the word of God. But Marie recognises him as the warlord who raided her village and slaughtered her family. As such, she impulsively decides to take vengeance.
The premise is an instant hook with emotional gravitas to spare. “Our Father, The Devil” on top of being a clever title, is about how trauma fuels our lives, thoughts and actions, particularly how they can morph us into the worst versions of ourselves. The way the craft brings this to the foreground is as harrowing as it is a technical marvel. As Marie walks and contemplates in seeming silence, the sound design uses muted, distant screams and swinging blades to convey what is on Marie’s mind even before Patrick enters the picture. It is a bleak tone from the get go. The implications of the alluded horrors makes it so much worse, allowing us to understand when Marie takes drastic actions in order to make Patrick pay for his actions.
When Marie makes her move the film shifts from a mood piece into a mostly sole setting of conflict between Marie and Patrick. The film becomes particularly reminiscent of Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” (2013) as Marie takes more and more drastic actions in order to dish out to Patrick what she had to take from him. The close quarters cinematography, dark lighting and even more horrific sound design – which again implies violence more than outright shows it – adds to the chilling atmosphere as awful actions are met with the wounds of the past and the question of where the moral righteousness lies in this scenario.
“Disturbing, uneasy and horrific, yet also empathetic and smart, it is an emotional gut punch that asks tough questions yet does not sugarcoat the answers.”
It is a titanic conundrum with no easy answers, one that hinges on the crutch or dismissal of our moral compass. Yet the acting more than rises to the challenge of this. Savane is excellent as the seemingly harmless Patrick. His control of expression and emotive abilities are especially great at bafflement, as his seemingly harmless persona is contrasted by the brutal memories that Marie describes. Jennifer Tchiakpe has a great performance as Marie’s co-worker, who wants Marie to come out of her shell but also serves as her moral guide when the time comes. Yet Sadjo is absolutely magnificent. A performance of righteous fury tainted with a buried vulnerability Sadjo’s is a powerhouse turn that captivates the audience from start to finish.
Ellie Foumbi directs this picture to a tee, offering us constant food for thought as the moralities of the premise become further and further muddied. As uncomfortable and unsettling as the film can be, it is actually a thoroughly captivating analysis on forgiveness. We’re often taught to forgive – one could say it’s the very principle Christianity is built upon, the very religion Patrick is now sharing with the community. Yet when someone is responsible for such horrors, is forgiveness even possible let alone right? Does one’s awful actions justify your own? At what point does morality no longer apply? These are harrowing themes that Foumbi addresses with sensitivity and compassion alike, blending these feelings into the craftsmanship to give us a truly nail biting dilemma of a film.
“Our Father, The Devil” is one of the best offerings from this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. Disturbing, uneasy and horrific, yet also empathetic and smart, it is an emotional gut punch that asks tough questions yet does not sugarcoat the answers. It is a brilliant film and an absolutely phenomenal start to Foumbi’s feature film career. It’ll be exciting to see what she does next.