Review: Our Father, the Devil

Written and directed by Ellie Foumbi in her feature debut, an African refugee’s quiet existence in a sleepy mountain town in the south of France is upended by the arrival of a charismatic Catholic priest whom she recognizes as the warlord who slaughtered her family. Starring: Babetida Sadjo, Souleymane Sy Savane, Jennifer Tchiakpe, Franck Saurel, Martine Amisse and Maëlle Genet.

The first thing you have to dive into with Our Father, the Devil is how incredibly thought out and clear its intentions are. It has such a confident sense of self, reminiscent of Nikyatu Jusu’s work on Nanny, Ellie Foumbiknows exactly what she wants to say and that allows her to have a sincere freedom when it comes to her directorial style. That style elevates the film to another level, before delving into its emotional complexity, the range and variety of the direction is remarkable. There are moments where it throws back to a classic 1970s mystery style and it’s utterly satisfying to watch. Foumbi is also extremely clever with the positioning of her shots, often obscuring what would normally be in plain view to keep the suspense and tension going. Two things that it has a genuine bounty of, and it’s then topped with an impeccable score from Gavin Brivik which pushes all that further.

One of the other aspects which Our Father, the Devil has an exceptional handle on is using light and darkness to its advantage. Both visually and thematically because this is a story that could easily have been interpreted in a very heavy manner, or even in an excessively violent one, but that’s not what Foumbi does. Foumbi creates a balance of emotional maturity and an intimate exploration of deep rooted trauma that has an incomparable self-awareness. You can’t truly describe the astute, poignant and complex nature of this story in a way that’s going to do it justice, you have to experience it. Foumbi’s writing is sincerely brilliant, it’s clever and perfectly paced, it gives you everything you could want from this story and so much more. There’s no one goal or resolution, it’s about the evolution and introspection of its characters along the way.

Considering that sheer amount of complicated emotion, it puts a massive challenge in the path of its actors Babetida Sadjo and Souleymane Sy Savane but they were more than up to the job. Starting with Sadjo, the authentic feel to her struggle strikes right to your heart. There are countless layers to Marie but Sadjo encompasses all of them, there’s a gripping intensity to her performance. Just the presence alone that she brings in key moments is fantastic, with a simple look she can communicate an abundance of fear, anger, conflict and loss. This role is asking her to portray an extreme amount of trauma and the fact that she is actually able to capture it all is impressive.

Savane’s performance is a big part of that, his character is a vehicle to bring out Marie’s story while also creating his own. One of the most fascinating aspects to his performance is how mysterious it is, you could interpret his actions in a multitude of ways. Each individual viewer could see any particular moment as cold and manipulative or if more trusting, genuine emotion. We’re handed the idea of his persona then Savane builds on that foundation and makes it complicated and gives it a surprising depth.

Our Father, the Devil is a tour de force in exploring trauma, what Ellie Foumbi has achieved with her feature debut is genuinely incredible. The story is so complex and yet it never feels weighed down by that intense level of emotion. It moves with such an enviable fluidity, Foumbi has such a confidence and clarity in what she’s trying to achieve. Babetida Sadjo and Souleymane Sy Savane make a flawless pair to lead this story, their performances are full of emotional brilliance and consciousness. Again, it’s almost impossible to describe this film in a way that will do it true justice, it needs to be experienced.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯✯ | 10/10

Reviewed as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2023

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