Monday 13 April 2020

The Other Lamb (Ireland/Belgium/USA 2019: Dir Malgorzata Szumowska)

Polish director Szumowska's first English language film is the story of a sect, located somewhere in the wilds of the US of A (actually Ireland, and looking sumptuous courtesy of Michal Englert's stunning cinematography). Headed by the enigmatic figure of The Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) he is, as others comment, 'the only ram' in an otherwise all female commune. The women are split into two groups: 'wives' and 'sisters,' dressed in purple and blue respectively to differentiate them. As is always the case with setups like this, the organisation of the camp is based on control by The Shepherd and total oppression of the girls and women.

One of the 'sisters' is Saleh (Raffey Cassidy, already carving out an interesting career with appearances in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) and 2018's Vox Lux). An orphan - her mother died in childbirth while living in the commune - she is, when the film opens, starting to have doubts about the supremacy of The Shepherd and also her own future: it is assumed that once Saleh begins menstruating she will graduate from 'sister' status to one of The Shepherd's 'wives.' and although not explicitly stated there is a distinct possibility that Saleh is The Shepherd's daughter.

After police intervention, their leader decides that the group need to move on from their present 'premises' - a static caravan and a few lean tos - and relocate their operation further into the forest. While there are already strong hints that the commune is a less than happy one - Saleh's meeting with the exiled Sarah (Denise Gough) whose bodily scars testify to the outcome of daring to question The Shepherd - after the Police visit, their leader's mood darkens considerably. Living more or less out of doors, the group faces an uncertain future and Saleh, now troubled by bloody visions, has an increasing concern for her own well being.

The Other Lamb, from the title onwards, is stuffed with religious references. The cult is called 'Eden' and The Shepherd, with his Christ like long hair and tendency to pronouncements such as "I sacrificed my life for you" deifies himself fairly effectively (albeit drawing on the Old Testament for his philosophies). Things get a little overworked - the lambs that follow the group on their travels are regularly and dispassionately slaughtered by the women, and the close ups of these beasts reflect the blank stares of the women as 'sheep' under the control of their leader.

The Shepherd - real name Michael as he's directly referenced in one very powerful scene - is impressively and very underplayed by Huisman, so when the violence eventually erupts (as we all knew it would; there's very little that will surprise in the storytelling) it's all the more powerful. But the revelation here is 18 year old Raffey Cassidy who delivers an incredible performance as Sadeh. A girl born in the camp, who knows no other life, her gradual realisation that The Shepherd's teachings are the ravings of a psychopathic control freak is heartbreaking.

'Eden's oppressive regime and the women's colour coded dress both suggest the influence of Bruce Miller's recent adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale; and whereas other movies about cults have at least tried to show the apparent benefits of membership - 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene, Ti West's 2013 movie The Sacrament or even Ari Aster's Midsommar (2019) - there is little in The Shepherd's setup that could be considered improving or spiritually satisfying: The Other Lamb may not be saying anything new, but what is does say is communicated very powerfully.

The Other Lamb will be released in the UK on 3 July via MUBI.

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