Note Marie’s hands in Ellie Foumbi’s spiky directorial debut Our Father, the Devil. They often reveal more about the steely protagonist than her facial expressions. There is a certain method in the way she holds a carrot in one hand and a stainless steel knife in the other. Her movements are fast, precise and rhythmic. She brings an energy similar to slicing a loaf of bread, swinging a stiletto and slicing into dough.
“I am not bothered by the human body,” Marie, played by an excellent Babetida Sadjo, says to her favorite nursing home resident Jeanne (Martine Amisse) at the beginning of the film. Her lips curl into a rare and generous smile. Why does her benign response to a discarded sentiment about old age seem like a scathing confession?
Our Father, the Devil
It comes down to
An exciting debut.
Date of publication: Friday, August 25
Form: Babetida Sadjo, Souleymane Sy Savane, Jennifer Tchiakpe, Franck Saurel, Martine Amisse
Director-Screenwriter: Ellie Foumbi
1 hour 47 minutes
Our Father, the Devil is a cleverly constructed study of trauma and a tantalizing character study. After premiering at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and a string of critical acclaim – including a nomination for the Independent Spirit Awards – the film will make its theatrical debut in New York on Friday and shortly thereafter in Los Angeles.
Foumbi appropriates thriller conventions to lure us into the depths of Marie’s haunting: a journey filled with frayed nerves, skittish energies and terrifying behavior. It’s not until we settle into her perspective, find some kind of twisted solace in her routine, that the film changes course. Foumbi has other plans for us. This is not a predictable story.
Marie, a West African refugee, is an impenetrable figure. She does not resemble the African protagonists typical of migration films. There are no broad, sentimental tales of dreams and resettlement here. There are also no flashbacks to life in the old country or wistful statements about a better future in the new country. Our intimacy with Marie is earned through subtle insights into her psychological scars rather than romanticized images of economic struggle.
She works as a chef in a retirement home and watches movies weekly with her best friend Nadia (Jennifer Tchiakpe). She spends several days and evenings in a local café, where a waiter named Arnaud (Franck Saurel) unsuccessfully tries to sleep with her. The beats of Marie’s life are relatively unremarkable and yet it’s clear from the opening image that she’s haunted. By what is revealed slowly and with expert control.
Trouble begins with Father Patrick (played with uncanny precision by Souleymane Sy Savané), who appears seemingly out of nowhere. When Marie shows up at work one day, she finds her colleagues and the residents entranced by the priest’s sermon. “While we cannot change the past, we should instead ask God to change our perception of it,” he tells his audience. The sound of his voice – calm, baritone, sonorous – shocks Marie, who immediately passes out.
While others cling to Father Patrick’s charm and kindness, Marie doesn’t trust him. There’s a reptilian edge to his charisma, and Marie is sure she knows him. She wants to prove that this sacred figure is a relic of her painful past.
When it comes to structuring and charting the layers of Marie’s obsession, Foumbi wields impressive restraint. Our Father, the Devil starts like a revenge thriller. A disturbing encounter in the kitchen of the retirement home leads Marie to kidnap Father Patrick and place him in a remote cottage. There she proceeds to torment and interrogate him, reenacting scenes of childhood abuse. Over time, Marie’s story emerges more clearly: the young chef was a child soldier, subjected to nightmarish torture, masked as divine initiation.
Sadjo’s performance is crucial to maintaining Foumbi’s vision and control. The actress complicates Marie with physical signals, creating a curious and powerful character. The hands are critical. Through them we see Marie’s attempts to suppress the psychological consequences of her past, to transform self-loathing into a kind of power. Cinematographer Tinx Chan draws us in with his generous use of close-ups, and Roy Clovis’ editing combines these intimate angles with wider shots. When Marie rolls steak strips the next day, her gloved hands carefully stuffing them into them, this contrasts with her aggressive grip on the colander she used to knock Patrick unconscious in an earlier scene.
Our Father, the Devil explores the shifts between vulnerability and insensitivity to understand how the past lives in the body. The longer Marie holds the priest hostage, the more she becomes consumed by him. Her relationship with Patrick is based on exchanging reconstructions of their childhood: Marie urges Patrick to confess his true identity, while his memories depend on vehement denial. Together, their flashbacks form a desperate, searching and deeply human melange of memories. Somewhere in their chorus are notes of healing, and Foumbi’s story gently urges them to be louder.
In lesser hands, pulling these healing threads would unravel and push the story Our Father, the Devil into unrealistic sentimental territory. But Foumbi creates a sophisticated tension within Marie’s journey, constantly forcing the character to renegotiate her goals. It also stages a confrontation between viewer, protagonist and hostage, asking: how do you calm a hurt soul seeking redemption? The conclusions that Our Father, the Devil ultimately, the draws are powerful, redeeming, and moving.