Małgorzata Szumowska’s latest feature is one of the year’s most visually stunning and hauntingly atmospheric films
Known for her uncompromising, singular-vision works, Małgorzata Szumowska is one of the world’s most interesting filmmakers who delivers often genre-bending, unapologetic and visionary work that rarely seeks to ponder rather than pander, stir a discussion rather than present clear-cut answers to complex questions. Such was the case with her previous films, most notably BODY and MUG, the latter of which had some hints to religion and the impact of faith on society’s ability to go beyond stereotypes and find forgiveness, empathy and compassion deep within.
Centered on a cult led by Shepherd (Michiel Huisman), the film tells the story of two generations of women who are entirely under the spell of an eccentric religious leader. Isolated completely from the world, with no access to technology, the women and girls live in self sufficiency and constant worship to that enigmatic leader who provides them shelter in return of sex and blind worship.
In her first English-language feature, Szumowska opts for an extremely risky yet deeply rewarding experiment. Short almost wordlessly, with sparse dialogue whose function is to connect the visual narrative elements rather than tell a story or clarify plot points, THE OTHER LAMB is one of those films which needs to be experienced on the big screen as a reminder of how cinema’s power remains in its visual wonder, that elusive sense of escape, intrigue, excitement and – such as the case with this film – wordless enchantment that forces audiences to explore layers of meaning without waiting to be spoon-fed with dialogue.
It is a risky approach that may make the film somewhat inaccessible for those seeking a more straightforward storytelling approach, but what makes THE OTHER LAMB a truly unique film is precisely that. Shot in sequences of nightmares, premonitions, visions and real-life moments, the film immerses viewers into an arresting visual world which, rather than attempt at pretentious deep-thinking or over analysis of its topical subject, prefers to convey the emotion and experience of its two generational set of characters. And just like that, the film starts and ends in a glimpse, a dream, a visual tour-de-force spark that is completely fresh and certainly far more risk-taking than anything American cinema can attempt to undertake at a time where general audiences crave spandex fare and more traditional stories.
That’s not to say THE OTHER LAMB will not find an audience – the film will find its nice thanks to a potentially strong festival path ahead and a more entertaining, visually striking offering from Małgorzata Szumowska. Its English language dialogue and known performers should offer further visibility even though the film’s key strength – and most likely biggest draw – lies in its endless sense of visual wonder, along with a star-making performance by Raffey Cassidy whose character, Selah, symbolizes the generation of ambitious, powerful women of today who may be capable of rejecting patriarchy in ways their previous generation couldn’t dare to. In packaging the film’s visual experience from the point of view, mindset and visions of Selah, the film succeeds in engaging on a more intimate level anchored by a brilliant performer who fully inhibits her character.
Verdict: It may not be for everyone, but THE OTHER LAMB is an undeniable visual feast for the senses, and a celebration of atmospheric storytelling that may have sacrificed chunks of dialogue but never lost sight on its desired impact. An experience more than a traditional story, this is a film that leaves you in awe of its beauty and impeccable craft.
This review is from the 44th Toronto International Film Festival.