Director Malgorzata Szumowska (In the Name of) takes her first foray into English speaking cinema and she delivers on the visual and atmospheric aspects of her project. Immediately, The Other Lamb kidnaps the audience away into the woods and surrounds us with all the vibrant splendor nature has to offer in hopes the location will make us forget why we are in the forest in the first place...
...As we look closer at the beautiful scenery, we see typical images associated with patriarchal focused cults. Throughout the sequestered forest camp hang child-like drawings of a bearded man which could hold the innocent connotations associated with a child’s drawing hanging on the fridge. Yet even when done with crude drawing implements, the pictures depict a cold unblinking face which serves as a reminder this malevolent leader ‘sees all.’ Upon establishing the creepiness of the cult, the camera focuses on a small group of women as they sing a traditional children’s song called “The Babes in the Wood.” The eerily beautiful song narrates the tale of two children who go into the woods and become so lost, the pair eventually die and because no one knows where they are, only the forest mourns the children. Already the director slaps us with beauty and terror, so we do not know what to trust.
Spotted throughout the forest are women in long concealing dresses of a single color and we see them performing unnecessarily arduous chores due to the lack of modern technology. Half the women wear red and the other half wear blue and before we learn the exact reason for their clothing, we see the hue of their dress determines the social role of the women. The bright colors serve as a distinct and vibrant way to segregate the women from each other, but also makes their presence in the deep woods seem more foreign and out-of-place. Later, at the crowded dining room table Shepard (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones, The Invitation) addresses the red-suited women as ‘wives’ and the blue-uniformed as ‘daughters.’
In the opening segments of the film, the cult becomes established as very group-orientated with the male leader making all the decisions for the women under his control. Shepard chooses the clothing, chores, and even the thoughts for all the women. And while his disciples take comfort in each other and find enjoyment in joking, singing, and talking, they must refrain from creative ideas as storytelling is forbidden. Only the leader possesses the power to create and the women must accept his words as truth. The women rely on recited prayers created by their leader to instill obedience and a false sense of security. Even at night the women find no sense of solitude as the daughters and wives share a bed respectively and join together in a group prayer before falling asleep. The wives give ‘thanks’ for being a wife, but the daughters take part in a really creepy prayer they most likely repeated for so long the words do not hold real meaning to them. Heavy on the sexual innuendo, the girls drone on about how Shepard will grant them a “deeper experience” as he “comes down upon them” and “fills them with himself.” So, within the first few minutes of the film we know Shephard has bred himself a new generation of ‘wives.’
The director and editor create gorgeous and artsy scenes with impressive cinematography, but perhaps putting less attention on how the film looks and more attention on how the story or characters develop would have made The Other Lamb a more memorable movie. The film aspires to be a slow burn with all the dramatic pauses, drawn-out camera shots, and artistic placement of skinned lambs, yet the pacing rushes through any enjoyment which might accrue from a slow burn. When in the secluded commune, very little arises or changes, but furthering the progression of the story picks up speed with the ambulatory movement of the characters away from the camp. Once forced on the run, the story develops at a much faster pace which changes the overall tone and appearance of the film. The harmonious singing within the lush scenery witnessed in the beginning of the movie quickly melts into tears and unforgiving landscape.
Besides engaging surroundings, the film also offers up strong leads to appease the audience. Raffey Cassidy’s (Tomorrowland) performance as Saleh strengthens the movie as she controls the emotions of her character and her scenes with adroit precision. She serves mostly as an observer, so the audience witnesses the collapse of the cult through Saleh’s eyes. As she gradually acquires the knowledge and free-thinking abilities which allow her to understand her situation, even Cassidy’s outward appearance helps deepen the atmosphere. With the growing fear and acceptance of her reality, the physical dishevelment of Saleh’s hair indicates the unraveling of her spirit and her commitment to the cult.
Aside from Saleh, the only other character which develops behind a one-dimensional stand-in would be the Shephard. Michiel Huisman does well with commanding a scene with simply glaring into the camera and giving a slight smile. Even from his non-verbal exchanges, Shephard demonstrates his cockiness and ability to manipulate. However, the film could have benefitted from developing the character further. Either more interactions (beyond him staring) with the women in the cult or a backstory would make the film more intriguing.
On the surface The Other Lamb touts a lot of the necessary qualities for an outstanding film: Strong female lead, creepy villain (though not enough of him), and stunning locations and cinematography. So, why does the film not work? The answer? No insight into the cult. Why does it exist? How does it exist? The movie starts in medias res and seems more of a coming-of-age story as Saleh begins to recognize her misogynistic upbringing. The creepiness and unsettling qualities of the cult bring a bit of unease to the audience, but the lack of depth or explanation for the existence of the cult limits the development of the film beyond what is ultimately a pretentious art film.
Sacrifice The Other Lamb when it releases on VOD April 3rd through IFC Midnight.
By Amylou Ahava
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