If the title “Our Father, the Devil” seems familiar, it’s likely because the hitherto unnoticed Franco-American co-production was nominated for the Spirit Award for the best feature film in late 2022.
Ellie Foumbi’s debut film had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival a few months previously and is currently seeking U.S. distribution. Although calling it one of the best films of the year may be a bit of an exaggeration, there’s no doubting its merit.
A piercing, at times unmanageable examination of grief and forgiveness, the enigmatic drama explores somewhere you almost surely won’t expect — and, once there, makes you question how you ever believed it could have gone anywhere else.
Marie (an amazing Babetida Sadjo) is the head chef of a swanky retirement home in the south of France. After serving duck confit to a discerning resident, she discovers that the woman has just changed her will to include Marie.
The first indication that everything is not well, despite what looks to be a happy existence, occurs early, in a scene that is so brief that it is easy to miss, as Marie alters one night. The room she occupies in is dimly lit, but we can still see weird marks right below her shoulder: circular scars that resemble cupping marks. When Marie faints at the sight of a newly arrived African priest (Souléymane Sy Savané) delivering a sermon at the retirement home, it is difficult not to think about the scar tissue.
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As he contemplates the difficulty of following up to God’s example as imperfect beings, this man of the cloth is initially framed from the neck down, so we only see his collar and not his face. Before passing out, the camera zooms in on Marie’s face as tears gather at the corner of her eyes as she approaches the chamber where he and his temporary congregation are. It is very evident that these two men are connected by more than the fact that they both immigrated to France from Africa.
The characteristic of the past is that it frequently appears in the present. Father Patrick, as this man calls himself, seems to be evidence of this. Small, seemingly benign actions, such as entering Marie’s kitchen after hours to request more soup, demonstrate his authority and make it impossible for her to go on, although we are unsure of what. Before the two have publicly acknowledged one another, “Our Father, the Devil” takes a sharp swing to the right, leaving up the possibility that Father Patrick doesn’t remember Marie or that they’ve never met. She is so agitated whenever she is in his presence that we cannot be certain, at least initially.
“Our Father, the Devil” thrives on this mystery, so it is disheartening when Foumbi abandons it in favor of a conclusive resolution as to whether Marie and Father Patrick do in fact know each other. Just as Marie’s attempts to keep this part of herself and her past separate from the rest of her life are not always successful, neither are the film’s — it’s difficult to convey the tonal oddity of transitioning from an incredibly intense scene between Marie and Father Patrick to a sex scene accompanied by a conventionally romantic score, but the rest of the film is not as disjointed.
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During a stroll, Marie’s old benefactor tells her, “We have dark souls.” Because of this, we get along so well. They are not the only characters in Foumbi’s film that fit this description, which reminds me of a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men”: “You think that when you get up in the morning, yesterday doesn’t count. However, yesterday is all that matters. What else exists? Your life is comprised of the days it is comprised of. Nothing else.” Marie would undoubtedly concur, and her fight to overcome her past is both valiant and terrible.
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