Our Father, the Devil is an impressive debut feature from writer/director Ellie Foumbi. It is a novel and forceful look at the complex moralities that surround violence and moral redemption, with stellar performances and carefully crafted filmmaking.
The film begins with many moments of hope for the main character, Marie (played by Babetida Sadjo). She works as a head chef at a nursing home in the beautiful, quiet French countryside. Her former culinary teacher writes Marie into her will, giving Marie her family’s quaint, secluded cottage. There is a sweet, handsome man attempting to court her, and a close best friend she attends weekly movie nights with. Despite the life she has built, we can tell from the beginning that Marie is haunted, as she carries herself with the emotional armor that can only come from a deep, awful trauma.
A ghost of her past arrives when Marie recognizes a priest who has been hired to work at the nursing home she works at as a chef. But Marie knows his true identity: he is the warlord who murdered her family and destroyed her village. She knocks him out and takes him to her newly acquired cottage, where she tortures him to make him give up his true identity. Even though he persistently denies it, it only takes him a few days to slip up and reveal that Marie was, in fact, correct. The balance between Marie’s normal life and the ghost she literally has tied up in a secluded cottage becomes increasingly delicate as she is forced to confront her past. She cannot ignore her reflection in the demons of her past, and the lines between her victimhood and her own sins become increasingly entangled.
Our Father, the Devil is not about redemption – though perhaps it is about forgiveness (or at least the hope thereof). Ellie’s screenplay asks: are there some acts that are beyond forgiveness, even in the eyes of a greater god? Ellie’s film highlights the blurred lines of moral question that genocide creates – are those who follow, who commit acts of violence as ordered by those higher ups, equally to blame? Leaving the theater I thought of the defendants at Nuremberg who argued that no, the followers are not to blame, and how the common thought is that they were wrong and are, of course, to blame for their heinous crimes against humanity. That is an easy, unquestionable answer.
Ellie lets go of the cliched tales of morality and victimhood, and brilliantly embraces the painful complexity of the human experience.
But what of Marie, who is undeniably a victim, and only participated in those horrible acts after losing her village and family and being forced into the offensive, genocidal army. She, and most who went through the same experience, only became child soldiers out of the need to survive – it was not a choice. Still, Marie cannot shake self-blame for the acts she committed in her youth, and by the end of the film it is clear that she does not believe she deserves redemption, nor that she should be forgiven. Ellie’s screenplay lets go of the cliche tales of morality and victimhood, and brilliantly embraces the painful complexity of the human experience.
The film is a gut wrenching, slow burning character study, and Babetida Sadjo is an absolute revelation throughout it.
Our Father, the Devil is a gut wrenching, slow burning character study, and Babetida Sadjo is an absolute revelation throughout it. She carries Marie with the whole weight of the character’s past, making the viewer root for her as much as we are afraid of her and the power that her drive for revenge possesses. Her darkest secrets are forced to the surface, and she is forced to reckon with herself.
Ellie spent the pandemic fleshing out the backstories of each character with the actors, and the time devoted to allowing them to live as these characters is exceedingly obvious and immersive. Despite the extensive preparation, Ellie said that they filmed the most intense scenes with little rehearsal, partially due to time restraints, but also to allow the characters to live in the moment, and feel out what they would do. Babetida’s performance is dynamic and profound, and as she reckons with her own reflection we are dared to see ourselves in her eyes. It is a tragic story to witness – the downfall that had been chasing Marie her whole life has finally caught up with her.
The physical scars are not as unbearable as the mental ones. The past exists as a ghost that can never be shaken (and that ideology lurks in the shadows throughout Our Father, the Devil). I kept expecting something to jump out at us, a demon to attack, but it never needed to – its presence was always known. The violence in this film is largely implied, told to us through monologue or sound design alone. It is the type of violence that need not make a spectacle of itself for greatest impact.
While I agree with Our Father, the Devil’s categorization as a psychological thriller, leaving the theater I felt as if I had just watched a horror film.
Our Father, the Devil is a film that shakes you to your core, that terrifies only through the implication of a devil. While I agree with Our Father, the Devil’s categorization as a psychological thriller, leaving the theater I felt as if I had just watched a horror film. The horror exists within the possibility of there being no redemption for Marie, that the sins of her past are beyond cleansing, and she will never escape them.
Babetida Sadjo’s performance and Ellie Foumbi’s carefully composed filmmaking are together a force – a meticulously crafted moral balance of sin and redemption. The film teeters on its edge, and by the end we have no answers… How could we?
© Hannah Mayo (9/26/23) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Director Ellie Foumbi discusses the film at the 45th annual Mill Valley Film Festival.
Watch the trailer for the film here.
Visit Ellie’s IMDb page for a long list of nominations & awards for OUR FATHER, THE DEVIL.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Actor Babetida Sadjo as Marie Cissé in OUR FATHER, THE DEVIL (2021). Photo courtesy of Cineverse.
Bottom Photo: Filmmaker Ellie Foumbi attends the “Crimes Of The Future” New York Premiere at Walter Reade Theater in New York, NY, June 2, 2022. Photo Credit: Anthony Behar/ Sipa USA / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2JB4JB9