February 3, 2023

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‘Our Father, The Devil’ Review: Past Is Prologue In Promising Debut

3 min read

If the title “Our Father, The Devil” rings a bell, that’s probably because the previously under-the-radar Franco-American co-production received a Spirit Award nomination for best feature in late 2022. Eli Fumbi’s first feature premiered a few months ago at the Venice Film Festival and is still seeking US distribution. While calling it one of the best films of the year seems a bit much, there’s no denying it deserves attention. A cutting, sometimes unsolicited exploration of trauma and forgiveness, the mystical drama goes places you almost certainly wouldn’t expect — and, once there, how you’d think it could go anywhere else.

Marie (a wonderful Babette Sadzo) is the head chef at an upscale retirement home in the south of France, a gnarlier gig than it sounds — after one day serving duck to a discerning resident, she learns that the woman has just updated her wishes to include Marie. The first sign that all is not well despite what seems to be a contented existence comes early, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene when Mary changes one night. The room he’s in is dimly lit, but we can still see the odd mark just below his shoulder—a circular scar that looks like the result of a cupping. Foumbi’s camera doesn’t linger on them, but it’s hard not to think about the scar tissue when, just minutes later, the sight of a newly arrived African priest (Souléymane Sy Savané) delivering a sermon at a retirement home causes Marie to faint.

First, this man of cloth is framed from the neck down, meaning we see his collar but not his face because he speaks of the difficulty of living up to God’s example as an imperfect creature. Mary slowly approaches the room where she and her temporary congregation are, as if the mere sound of her voice is ringing an alarm in her head as she walks down the hall; Before she leaves, the camera zooms in on her face as tears form in the corners of her eyes. It’s a corker of a scene, which makes it clear that these two figures are more connected than the fact that they both came to France from Africa.

The thing about the past is that it often finds its way into the present. Father Patrick, as this man calls himself, will prove it. Small, seemingly innocuous acts—coming into Mary’s kitchen after hours to ask for more soup, for example—are exerting energy and making it impossible for her to move on, though we don’t know from what. “Our Father, Satan” takes a hard right turn before the two officially confess to each other, leaving open the possibility that either Father Patrick doesn’t really remember Mary or that they never actually met. He’s so full of his presence each time that we can’t be sure—at least not at first.

“Our Father, the Devil” thrives on that uncertainty, which is why it’s frustrating when Foumby abandons whether Mary and Father Patrick actually know each other in favor of a definitive answer. Just as Mary’s attempts to keep this part of herself and her past separate from the rest of her life aren’t always successful, neither is the film – the tonal oddity of going from an incredibly intense sequence between Mary and Father Patrick is hard to explain. A completely different sex scene with a conventional romantic soundtrack, but at least the rest of the film isn’t so disjointed.

“We are dark souls,” Mary’s elderly benefactor tells her as they visit one day. “That’s why we get on so well.” They are far from the only descriptions that apply to Formby’s film, which calls to mind a line from Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men”: “You think yesterday morning didn’t count when you woke up. But yesterday’s all that counted. Either. What’s the matter? Your life is made of days. Nothing else.” Marie would certainly agree, and her struggle to move on from yesterday is as brave as it is tragic.

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