There’s always satisfaction in watching abhorrent characters get their due, but the journey leading to their comeuppance is crucial — it makes any catharsis more satisfying, but it also provides context, and a point to what’s happening. Stories about cults led by men fashioning themselves as gods and abusing young women are tough to stomach in fiction and in reality, and the arthouse drama The Other Lamb is no exception to that rule. Director Małgorzata Szumowska and cinematographer Michał Englert have crafted a gorgeous movie that’s still difficult to watch. Scenes of sexual abuse and assault are frequent, and the constant focus on the suffering the film’s women endure feels unwarranted in light of how thin the story ultimately is.
The cult at the center of The Other Lamb is led by a man (Michiel Huisman) who styles himself as “the Shepherd,” and the women who follow him as his “flock.” He’s portrayed in Christ-like murals around the forest they call home. They seem to be suspended out of time, as the Shepherd dresses in robes, and the “wives” and “daughters” (the female children the Shepherd has fathered) are dressed in red and blue frocks, respectively. The outside world seems nonexistent, and the movie seems to be set in the past — until a modern police car arrives on the property, and its passenger informs the Shepherd that he and his followers must find a new home. The journey to reach one is arduous, bringing out the Shepherd’s less godly personality traits, and forcing his followers to reassess their situation. Does he really know where he’s leading them? Is his increasing cruelty warranted?
Those questions weigh heavily on one of the daughters, Selah (Raffey Cassidy). She’s favored for her beauty (the Shepherd tells her she reminds him of her mother, who supposedly died giving birth to her) and her “purity,” as she hasn’t started menstruating yet. However, as she grows older — and the Shepherd takes a wife just barely older than she is — her affection for him wanes. That fracture grows wider as the community moves and Selah grows closer to Sarah (Denise Gough), one of the Shepherd’s wives whom he now refers to as a “broken thing,” relegating her to the fringes of the group.
Selah’s disillusionment is gradual. As the film begins, she’s reprimanded for an act of pettiness committed out of jealousy of the Shepherd’s favor, and she spends most of the early film trying to curry his favor. The slow seep of uncertainty into her life is the most compelling thread Szumowska tugs at, as the possibility of her liberation hangs in the balance. There’s a darker thread unraveling at the same time, though, the seeming inevitability that Selah, too, will become a wife, as the Shepherd’s predatory ways, while invisible to his flock, are clear to the audience. He has a group of young women completely devoted to him, and the older wives note that his attention is mostly on his younger wives.
Each scene with Selah and the Shepherd is something to actively dread, especially as The Other Lamb doesn’t have much to say. It’s a simple story — one of women finally banding together to try to overcome an abusive man — and Szumowska puts all her chips on telling her tale well rather than finding any deeper meaning or resonance. She seems well-intentioned, but her film’s simplicity makes the gratuitous, seemingly pointless abuse in The Other Lamb even harder to stomach. It’s clear from the outset that the Shepherd is intimate with all of his wives, as the prayers they recite every night, thanking him for his “grace,” are obviously sexual in nature. Unease naturally permeates the film; events unfold slowly, often with cuts away to dreamy imagery. The acts of abuse — images of the Shepherd pawing at a member of his flock while both look directly into the camera — don’t add anything besides shock value.
There’s a similar surface-level approach to the film’s racial dynamics, as all of the Shepherd’s wives are white, save one (played by Esosa Ighodaro, and named only in the credits as Leah), who never speaks except during scenes of collective prayer or song. In the latter case, she’s left to riff in juxtaposition with the other wives’ by-the-book singing. She comes off as a token character, plugged into the film to make slightly more gospel music usable, and to keep the cast from being all white.
But if there’s one thing to praise beyond the film’s visuals, which boast a striking stillness and care with color, it’s Cassidy’s performance. Selah’s uncertainty manifests in increasingly rebellious behavior, and flashes of what may be dreams, premonitions, or both. And Cassidy blends anger and confusion perfectly, growing almost feral as her preconceived notions about the Shepherd start to dissolve.
Though The Other Lamb ultimately offers more for the eyes than food for thought, it’s still skillfully made, and the scenes in which the women are allowed to simply enjoy each other’s company, without having to think of the Shepherd or the restrictions of the world they live in, are wonderful. But they don’t last long enough. This would-be tale of female empowerment spends too much time worrying about visuals rather than the story it’s telling, and it loses any sense of catharsis as a result.
The Other Lamb is now on VOD and digital platforms.
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