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SAN SEBASTIÁN 2019 Competition

Review: The Other Lamb

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- Malgorzata Szumowska's first English-language film has rich rewards for those willing to uncover the cult

Review: The Other Lamb
Raffey Cassidy in The Other Lamb

The Other Lamb [+see also:
interview: Malgorzata Szumowska
film profile
]
tackles patriarchy in an inventive and thoughtful manner, giving the viewer space to draw their own conclusions. The drama revolving around a cult, called the Flock, is playing in competition at the San Sebastián Film Festival and the London Film Festival, following its world premiere as a Special Presentation at the Toronto Film Festival.

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Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska has built a formidable reputation making ambiguous, open-ended films about gender power dynamics and religious moralism. The results are purposely obtuse, designed to spark debate and question societal norms. Elles [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Malgorzata Sumowska
film profile
]
(2011) is about a French woman (Juliette Binoche) writing neutrally about female student prostitution. Body [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Malgorzata Szumowska
interview: Malgorzata Szumowska
film profile
]
(2015) questions whether there is a spiritual dimension separate from the physical. And, in her most recent film before this, Mug [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Małgorzata Szumowska
film profile
]
(2018), a man has a face transplant following an accident at the site of the world's biggest replica of Christ in Poland. This recent output has ensured that Szumowska is a firm festival favourite.

Szumowska's first English-language film, The Other Lamb, looks once again at the spiritual aspect of life and takes this theme of patriarchy to the extreme. It’s told through the wide eyes of 15-year-old Selah (rising British star Raffey Cassidy), who has only known life as part of the Flock. It's run by Shepherd (Michiel Huisman), who has positioned himself at the centre of the community as God, father and husband. The Flock, for there are only women, are either his wives or his daughters. And if you are a daughter, such as Selah, then you will reach puberty and become a wife. What makes The Other Lamb such an uncomfortable, challenging and excellent watch is that it pushes the idea that this system can only work with the permission of the women. The wives lament how the Shepherd once looked at them with the same ogling eyes he now casts over the daughters. The sweeping, circular moves of the camera position these wives as a coven. It's disconcerting and part of the mixed messages sent throughout this eerie drama that is always teetering on the edge of horror.

Taking place in the present, the congregation make homes in the forest (shot in a beautiful Irish landscape), and the group only move locations when the outside world encroaches. The authorities take an interest, but they don't seem too bothered as long as no serious crime is being committed. The relationship between these outsiders and the system is reminiscent of that explored by Debra Granik in the underrated Leave No Trace. Shepherd only needs to say that the women will be taken from him in order for them to adhere. There is symbolism everywhere, even in a Barbie doll left on a windowsill.

Selah is seen as unique, as she is the daughter of a mysterious mother figure who is continually talked of in mythic terms. There are hints of an invisible twist over the identity of her mum. Has she died or vanished, as we are led to believe? Or could she be the outcast bride? Eerily and bloodily portrayed by the excellent Denise Gough, the outcast bride always speaks of the mother in a laudatory manner and displays a maternal attitude towards Selah, so it’s definitely possible that it could be her. There are parallels in how the Shepherd touches both women, and in their propensity to rebel. It's a beguiling, complex movie that is open to many interpretations.

The Other Lamb was produced by Zentropa Belgium, Umedia (Belgium), Rumble Films (USA), Subotica Productions Limited (Ireland) and Rooks Nest Entertainment (UK), with the support of Screen Ireland. Its international sales are handled by TrustNordisk.

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