Ellie Foumbi’s Our Father, The Devil is a powerfully poignant film about resolving trauma, with a phenomenal central performance from Babetida Sadjo.
Occasionally, there’s something about a film that has you so transfixed it overwhelms everything else about it. Be it a particular narrative moment, the cinematography or special effects, or even a piece of music placed within a particular scene. In Ellie Foumbi’s Our Father, The Devil – Mon Père, Le Diable in the original French –, it’s the central performance that almost eclipses everything else around it.
Marie (Babetida Sadjo), a chef at a retirement home, lives a quiet and relatively solitary life. She bares scars, both physical and mental, from a traumatic childhood in Guinea before she came to France as a refugee. One day whilst at work, she hears a voice that she instantly recognises. It belongs to the charismatic Father Patrick (Souleymane Sy Savane), the home’s new Catholic priest, as he delivers his first sermon. But Maria is convinced he isn’t who he says he is, and is instead the man responsible for her family’s brutal murder.
Straight off the bat, the beating heart of this film is Babetida Sadjo. She is phenomenal in this role. At first reserved and unassuming, Marie’s stoicism slowly morphs into twitchy paranoia, then into anger, vulnerability, and finally an explosion of guilt, shame and fear that has been festering for years. It’s a powerhouse performance that feels raw and nuanced. Maria’s actions are certainly morally dubious, but they are also reactions to unresolved trauma and unexpected triggers, and it’s difficult to be anything but on her side.
Sadjo has such presence as Maria that very few other characters make as much impact. Savane feels almost like a mere conduit through which Maria can process her emotional trauma, and her friendship with Nadia (Jennifer Tchiakpe) and flirtation with Arnaud (Frank Saurel) are not nearly as compelling as Maria’s relationship with herself. While they don’t necessarily detract from the film, they don’t illicit as much emotional investment as Maria herself. But then, perhaps that’s the point. This is, after all, Maria’s story.
As a debut, Our Father, The Devil feels very confident. As writer and director, Foumbi understands the complexities of the subject being explored and the manner in which to build tension. The introduction of Father Patrick, in which he is only visible from the neck down, is a particularly effective example. Maria has a visible and visceral reaction to his voice, and yet we, the audience, are denied a full picture of what is causing it.
Her script feels perfectly judged, with less emphasis on the gory details and more on Maria’s ability to reckon with them. It’s not necessarily a film about resolution, but about recognition and the process of introspection. It feels crafted, meticulous with detail and about the way it delivers its emotional blows. A particularly effective example is the sound design, from Michael Bucazzo, that very subtly but affectively symbolises Maria’s growth throughout the film. Towards the middle of the film, a pensive stare into the distance is slowly encroached by faint screams, Maria’s horrifying memories that are clamouring for attention. By the end of the film, all that can be heard are the sounds of nature.
It’s a tiny detail, but one that very cleverly conveys how the focus of the film is, again, not about resolution or justice, but rather acknowledging, understanding and resolving trauma. Our Father, The Devil is a powerful, emotional and really impressively constructed film, and Babetida Sadjo is terrific in it. It’s an example of the necessity these stories, particularly those about and by women, and also of how one outstanding element can elevate an entire film.
Our Father, The Devil had its Scottish Premiere at the 2023 Glasgow Film Festival on 10-11 March, 2023. The film will be released by Fandor and Cineverse in select US theaters including the Quad in NYC (August 25) and the Laemmle Royal (September 1).