Marie Cissé (Babetida Sadjo) is a caretaker and head chef in a sleepy town in the south of France. It's a peaceful existence for the African refugee, the kind of existence that one might seek to escape the traumas of the past. However, Marie's peaceful life is upended by the arrival of Father Patrick (Souléymane Sy Savané), an African priest whom she recognizes from her former life and from the traumas she has tried to bury deep inside her. Forced to face the traumas of her past, Marie must either learn to work alongside Father Patrick or to deal with her daily terrors in her own way.
Our Father, the Devil is a remarkably assured directorial debut from Ellie Foumbi, a Cameroon-born filmmaker who grew up in the suburbs of New York City. The film, which just last night captured the Best Narrative Feature prize at my hometown's Heartland International Film Festival along with its $20,000 prize, is an astounding effort balancing a complex narrative that could have so easily gone wrong yet goes right every step of the way.
While it may sound like Our Father, the Devil is a psychological drama.
It is much more.
While it may sound like Our Father, the Devil is a revenge thriller.
It is, in fact, much more.
In the hands of Foumbi, Our Father, the Devil is an extraordinary film both filled with suspense and insight as it explores the trauma inflicted on children and how that trauma can become cyclical if left unresolved. It is a slow-building thriller devoid of the usual trauma-porn in favor of a realistic portrayal of the devastation of trauma on a soul-level, however, it is also a film about something resembling healing and second chances.
As Foumbi herself said in accepting her award at Heartland, "We all deserve a second chance."
To say that Babetida Sadjo's performance is magnificent seems an understatement. Perhaps it is my own disability, but during an early scene when she is talking to former instructor and now resident of the home Jeanne (Martine Amisse) and utters the words "the human body doesn't scare me" I practically wept. It was a gentle statement, nurturing in its wisdom yet by the end of the film had become so much more.
This was true throughout the film really. Every moment is precious. Every word is exquisitely timed. The precious here is simply remarkable as it seems like Foumbi must've been plotting out this remarkable effort for years to get everything so right. Tinx Chan's lensing for the film is jarring in its intimacy and forwardness, never traumatizing us yet still demanding that we never look away. There's a scene about twenty minutes into the film in which Father Patrick has arrived that simply left me absolutely breathless and much of that was because of Chan's patient, perfectly framed lensing.
The original score by Gavin Brivik companions the film and immerses us not just in this environment but in the heart and mind of Marie. We understand her, yes, but we also somehow gain even a little sympathy for Father Patrick who may or may not be the devil himself.
Of course, in such a precise film it would be foolish to not mention the stellar editing work by Roy Clovis. Cinematic perfection.
In a first narrative feature, both writing and directing is always such a risky choice. However, it's hard to imagine anyone but Ellie Foumbi bring this story to life with such vision and insight. As we watch Sadjo's Marie transform before our very eyes, it's clear that Foumbi understands how trauma works and the little nuances of how it changes one's behaviors. As Marie changes and those around her fail to understand or are incapable of effectively intervening, Foumbi seems to completely understand how this will impact Marie. In short, Foumbi's work here is simply exceptional as both writer and director of Our Father, the Devil.
Of course, one cannot forget the truly excellent work of Souléymane Sy Savané, likely the most familiar face to American audiences and giving a performance that offers so many complex layers that one can't help but feel both repulsion and sympathy simultaneously. It's an amazing performance by Savané that I'd dare say measures up to one of his career best.
The entire ensemble is strong here from Jennifer Tchiakpe as Marie's best friend and co-worker Nadia to Franck Saurel as local bartender Arnaud for whom Marie harbors a bit of a crush. Truthfully, there's simply not a weak link throughout the entire ensemble.
In what was an exceptional year for the Heartland International Film Festival, Our Father, the Devil stands out as a deserving winner of the fest's grand prize and a film that deserves to find a much wider audience. Providing a rare treatment of trauma that is both thrilling and intelligent, Our Father, the Devil is profound and deeply moving and also, I must say, a film that deeply lives into Heartland's mission of empowering filmmakers who create transformative cinema.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic