If there’s one sin in criticism that many writers––myself included––fall victim to at one point or another, it’s assessing a film’s narrative by comparing it to the one they wish they saw. Our Father, The Devil, the directorial debut of Cameroonian filmmaker Ellie Foumbi, is the kind of intriguing but flawed effort that may leave some viewers wishing to sand down its rougher edges, especially as its initial slow-burning character study transforms into a moodier, altogether more conventional kidnapping thriller. A surprise nominee for Best Feature at last year’s Indie Spirit Awards, not least because it remained almost entirely under the radar within the festival circuit, it is an effective calling card for Foumbi, showcasing a talented new filmmaker equally at home making a restrained drama as she is a splashy, violent genre effort.
That these starkly different tones don’t cohere into an entirely satisfying whole isn’t a novel issue: she’s hardly the first directorial newcomer who can’t meet her lofty ambitions head-on. It’s partly why I had to meet Our Father, The Devil halfway––its shift into conventional thriller territory constitutes much of the ambiguity that renders the opening act so striking and makes for a less interesting crisis of faith than the one initially established. But is this the film Foumbi set out to make, or am I just analyzing a genre movie based entirely on a false promise of what its opening stretch would become? There are still enough thrills in the subsequent chapters that kept me entertained, but I can’t pretend I wasn’t slightly disappointed that this came at the expense of diving further into a greater moral dilemma.
The inspiration for the actress-turned-director’s debut formed nearly two decades ago, when her father played a part in developing a “forgiveness program” with the Rwandan First Lady when the genocide was still a fresh wound. Upon meeting those who had been orphaned by the atrocity, she became fascinated by an exploration of how the victims of such a horrific event could ever forgive those responsible, and the impossibilities of moving beyond an inherent need for revenge. That desire to exact vengeance still lingers within Marie (Babetida Sadjo), a refugee who has long adapted to a new life in Southern France as a care home nurse. She’s comparatively quiet next to everybody else in her orbit, with the opening credits revealing––via the echoes of news reports ripped straight out of war zone frontlines––that the abuse she suffered as a child has been impossible to move past, still affecting how she views daily life.
Thanks to Sadjo’s exemplary lead performance, Marie isn’t characterized as a simplistic timebomb ready to explode with rage at any given moment––in fact, the smartest aspect of the writer-director’s screenplay is the acknowledgement of a limitation for any revenge she aims to exact within a white, patriarchal country eager to punish people of color for the smallest misdemeanors. This doesn’t begin to bubble up until the sudden arrival of Father Patrick (Souléymane Sy Savané), a charismatic priest who charms the care home residents, but Marie believes to be a deeply traumatic figure from her past. After years of dreaming that she could one day get her hands on the man responsible for her elusive, lingering pain, she believes he’s finally in her hands, and the sudden shift to revenge thriller eventually ensures nothing within this story can be left open to audience interpretation.
What is so striking about that transition into genre territory is the frequent suggestion that Marie’s attempt at finding closure through revenge is misguided––that she’s still so blindsided by her history, that she could be holding an innocent man responsible. It’s a crisis-of-faith narrative viewed entirely from the perspective of the one causing a crisis of faith, although the allegiances of this man of the cloth are far more intriguing when they’re unknowable; it’s hard to remain gripped by the type of thriller Our Father, The Devil reveals itself to be when every character’s card is are laid out so clearly on the table. It functions best when it revels in ambiguity and dares the audience to question whether Marie’s mission is justified, or merely passing on the chain of trauma to an unlucky innocent. The eventual answer to this question is the opposite of the one I wished for, making the overall exploration of this theme far less intriguing, even if the surface-level thrills remain.
If Foumbi does succeed in making sure there is no catharsis to be found in this tale, the way it functions as a revenge thriller offers more of a release than this narrative should; I found it unsatisfying overall because of the maneuvers it makes to satisfy some of the bloodlust on this front. It’s a movie that needs to be knottier in its approach to each characters’ morality and hopes for redemption––I doubt there will be any differing interpretations of any of these players from audiences. I suspect many will be impressed by the movie as a genre exercise elevated by two perfectly pitched, constantly transforming lead performances. I can’t help wishing its narrative path was thornier.
Our Father, The Devil opens in theaters on Friday, August 25.