SSIFF Review: 'The Other Lamb' Questions Humanity's Obedient Nature

Are humans naturally obedient? What does it take for someone to realize they're being led on, fed nonsense to keep them in line. How do they break free from the group mentality? These are just a few of the questions that this intriguing film brings up. The Other Lamb is the latest film made by acclaimed Polish filmmaker Malgorzata Szumowska, her first entirely English language feature following her Berlin Film Festival hit Mug from 2018 (which won her a Grand Jury Prize Silver Bear). Her style is on full display this time, telling a dark fairy tale-esque story about an group of only women living as a small congregation on their own in a forest. There is one man who leads them all, known as the "Shepherd", who refers to them as his wives and daughters. It's eerie, but that is the point. The film criticizes the patriarchal society we live in, and religion.

The easiest way to simply describe The Other Lamb is to say it's a lot like M. Night Shyamalan's The Village if it were run by Charles Manson (right down to the way that the main "Shepherd" man has long hair and a beard like Manson). There's influences from "The Handmaid's Tale" and Darren Aronofsky's Mother in this as well, but it's more of an atmospheric take on a tiny colony of people women living on their own without any contact with the civilized world that surrounds them. We follow one young "daughter", a woman named Selah played by Raffey Cassidy, who is pious and outspoken. But as she begins to grow up (literally going through puberty) and slowly starts to see the truth about her devout existence, she notices how insane and dangerous it all is. And while it isn't easy for her to break free from this obedience, she can begin to feel the change inside of her thanks to conversations with a woman who lives as an outcast separate from the others.

Anyone who criticizes this film and claims "this isn't realistic" is dead wrong - oh so many people in real life follow others and have blind faith and can't see how they're caught up in it all themselves. Charles Manson being one of the best example of this. The only reason we're still fascinated by him is because many are still wondering how he was able to convince so many (young women) to follow him and his word, no matter what it was he said/did. There's a film about this - Charlie Says. The Other Lamb screenplay is by an Australian writer, C.S. McMullen, and touches upon many forms of obedience - religion, capitalism, culture. These all exist, and it is very real. And just because this film tries to distill this concept of obedience into a 90 minute feature doesn't mean it's idiotic or immature - only those who refuse to read further into it and see beneath the surface-level story might feel this way. But there's plenty of turmoil in this film to analyze and discuss.

I honestly love that The Other Lamb is also a clear reference for religious obedience (because piousness and blind faith seriously bothers me). On one hand it is an obvious metaphor for women in society following one man and listening to him (a father, or boss, or any kind of leader), no matter how horribly he treats them, because it gives them "sisterhood". On the other hand, it's also a compelling metaphor for religion of all kinds. Michiel Huisman playing the Shepherd has the look of Charles Manson, but he also has the look of Jesus - with the long hair and beard, acting and speaking angelically through poetic verses. And what makes the film so compelling to watch is in the way all of his followers, his group of wives and daughters, continue to convince themselves that all of this is good and doing what he says makes them worthy of his love. Being rejected by him means they're bad, and this is how that vicious cycle continues. Exactly as in the real world.

As much as I appreciate the ideas and questions the film brings up, it's far from being an exceptional work. It's a good film, it has very strong style and aesthetic, but it's still a few steps away from being truly great. There's too many strange creative choices that get in the way, and it doesn't dig as deep as it could exploring this frightening obedience. Raffey Cassidy unfortunately seems miscast, and despite her attempts at giving a deeply meaningful performance, it becomes frustratingly bland. We never really truly get to understand why and how she changes. It seems clear that the film's most important message is that we can only break free and escape the cycle of dangerous obedience by working through it ourselves. No one can tell you or explain how to do it, you just have to figure it out on your own. The film isn't great at showing this through dialogue or performances, but it's still the loudest message being screamed out. One we should all be thinking about.

Alex's SSIFF 2019 Rating: 6.5 out of 10
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