REVIEW: The Other Lamb [2020]

Rating: 9 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 97 minutes
    Release Date: April 3rd, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Films
    Director(s): Malgorzata Szumowska
    Writer(s): C.S. McMullen

Do you accept my grace?

To be born into a world with set doctrines is to have no choice—often because you don’t realize one exists. That’s the power systemic modes of oppression hold over their victims. We’re told that fighting back makes things worse. Fighting for survival makes those in positions to help facilitate that survival less interested in helping. So we’re asked to remain quiet. Accept our fate and be grateful for what we have and grateful to those who give it with “grace” and not as a salve for the forever-tightening noose they’ve placed around our necks. Being born within it, however, also provides room for clarity. We didn’t choose this life. They chose it for us. You don’t have to know what’s out there to know this isn’t enough.

This is a truth so many at-risk communities around the world face and an oft-ignored reality that’s slowly beginning to reveal its cracks as those who accepted their fate out of fear and futility are making way for new generations who will no longer ignore the disparity between their level of autonomy and the control held by those who’ve deemed them unworthy of possessing any at all. Technology is facilitating this shift by flattening the Earth in ways that allow the oppressed to access venues proving they aren’t alone. Their numbers are much greater than those keeping them in chains and their voices have the potential to grow more deafening in order to show it. After all, the ruling class’ weapon of choice has always been your silence.

It’s therefore no surprise that director Malgorzata Szumowska and writer C.S. McMullen‘s film The Other Lamb centers around a lifestyle thrown out of time. Those points of connection to a world that’s better than the one cult leader Shepherd (Michiel Huisman) has created for his flock must be severed if he hopes to maintain his authority. So he cultivates panic whenever someone dares to threaten him. He makes it so only he is allowed to educate through stories. And he showers his disciples with attention—sexual and otherwise—to ensure they teach their daughters (his daughters) to respect his status as man, prophet, and savior. He is their shepherd as well as their ram. They are thus his lambs to own, impregnate, and most ardently consume.

Shepherd is the not so subtle manifestation of patriarchal rule with his wives standing in for the countless (mainly white) women around the country who support Republican doctrines that dismiss their bodies as property and his daughters (the lack of sons an obvious alarm bell) our nation’s newfound youth struggling to reconcile the differences between what their hear (that they are being protected) and what they see (that they are being led to slaughter). He creates beliefs that go against science (to have your period is to be impure and thus exiled until you’re “cleansed”) and enforces rules that guarantee his children stay malleable enough for him to keep his hooks in them (figuratively and literally). He praises their strong devotion so their willfulness is held at bay.

The bond cultivated by these mothers and daughters regulates much of the status quo Shepherd feeds upon. Having that extra voice in the young girls’ ears augments his mystique as the man they’re forced to adore and desire. So the fact Selah (Raffey Cassidy) is without can’t help but complicate matters. She doesn’t have that person to run to when someone doesn’t follow the rules. She doesn’t have that figure to remind her that her place within the group’s dichotomy is more important than her identity. Just because she’s the same age as some wives doesn’t mean she isn’t still below them where status is concerned. It should, though. The only thing preventing it is Shepherd’s unmoving wishes—a voice she has yet to rebel against.

I say “yet” because that awakening is The Other Lamb‘s point and Selah is uniquely positioned to provide its vessel. It’s precisely because of her piety to her prophet that she can begin to see the strings too since she has nothing else to occupy her time or efforts. She wants him to pick her for his love (the form of which is muddled due to flirtations and advances made outside the realm of “wives” even if they haven’t yet been fulfilled) and grows resentful when she’s not. And as her frustrations grow, punishments arise that push her towards a “broken” wife separated from the herd. Because Sarah (Denise Gough) is no longer enchanted by Shepherd’s “grace,” she’s more than willing to contradict his “truth” for authentic fact.

Szumowska utilizes the beautiful, almost otherworldly environment where she’s set McMullen’s script to visualize Selah’s coming-of-age journey towards the reality of her predicament. The gorgeous compositions of twisting trees at intriguing angles make way for intimate moments blurring the border between dream and life thanks to placing Shepherd in the distance, behind glass, or within shadows to always be gazing into her (and our) eyes with entitled judgment. The filmmaker then moves past her effective metaphor of women drowning beneath the hand of their male dictators to project the unspoken war that pits Selah against Shepherd upon the animals under their care. He’s the ram staring her down until she looks away and she’s the lamb who steadfastly refuses. She can no longer afford to condone his harm.

And neither can the others once the decision to pack up and leave is made. With the comfort of home gone and nothing but a long road built on faith in the unknown before them, who Shepherd truly is beyond the alluring façade comes out. How does he treat the pregnant wives forced to exert so much energy walking? How does keeping his control over them prevent the women from receiving necessary aid? What happens if one of those wives bears a son and there are no walled partitions for him to deal with the outcome away from prying eyes? Suddenly his rage is no longer witnessed on a case-by-case basis. The moment they see they aren’t alone opens the door for one of them to take charge.

It’s fascinating to watch Huisman and Cassidy go toe-to-toe throughout the film because the power structure built between them renders a lot of it unspoken. He calmly holds the upper hand so the horrors behind his smile stay unchecked. She’s angry but confused about why with heart and mind at odds. Her Selah is perpetually seething and yet she cannot confront the cause. Only when she sees that the freedom to escape Shepherd’s selfishness is an option outside his domain does she realize that rams are just as vulnerable to wild dog attacks as lambs. Only when she recognizes that her future possesses a fate similar to her dead mother’s rather than the fantasy of his promises does she realize her life is worth more than his words.

[1] Malgorzata Szumowska’s THE OTHER LAMB. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[2] Michiel Huisman as Shepherd in Malgorzata Szumowska’s THE OTHER LAMB. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[3] Raffey Cassidy as Selah and Ailbhe Cowley as Tamar in Malgorzata Szumowska’s THE OTHER LAMB. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

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