‘Our Father, the Devil’ Review: Ellie Foumbi’s Stirring, Startling Directorial Debut

Pay attention to 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’s a method to the way she grips a carrot with one hand and cradles a stainless-steel knife in the other. Her movements are swift, precise and rhythmic. She brings a similar energy to cutting a loaf of bread, brandishing a switchblade and cleaving into flesh.

“The human body doesn’t bother me,” Marie, played by an excellent Babetida Sadjo, says to her favorite nursing home resident, Jeanne (Martine Amisse), at the start of the film. Her lips curl into a rare and generous smile. Why does her benign response to a throwaway sentiment about old age spook like a damning confession?

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Our Father, the Devil is a cannily constructed study of trauma and a seductive character study. After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2021 and a parade of critical accolades — including an Independent Spirit Awards nomination — the film makes its theatrical debut in New York on Friday and Los Angeles soon after.

Foumbi appropriates thriller conventions to lure us into the depths of Marie’s haunting — a journey of frayed nerves, skittish energies and terrifying behaviors. It’s only once we’ve settled into her perspective, have taken a kind of twisted comfort 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 doesn’t resemble the African protagonists typical of films about migration. There are no broad, sentimental narratives about dreams and resettlement here. Nor are there are any flashbacks to life in the old country or wistful pronouncements of a better future in the new one. Our intimacy with Marie is earned through subtle insights into her psychic scars instead of romanticized images of economic struggle.

She works as a chef in a retirement home and watches movies with her best friend Nadia (Jennifer Tchiakpe) every week. She spends some days and evenings at a local café, where a server named Arnaud (Franck Saurel) tries, in vain, to sleep with her. The beats of Marie’s life are relatively unremarkable and yet, from the opening frame, it’s obvious she’s haunted. By what is revealed slowly and with expert control.

The troubles start with Father Patrick (played with eerie precision by Souleymane Sy Savané), who materializes seemingly out of thin air. When Marie shows up to work one day, she finds her colleagues and the residents rapt by the priest’s sermon. “While we cannot change the past, we should, instead, ask God to change our perception of it,” he says to his audience. The sound of his voice — calm, baritone, sonorous — shocks Marie, who immediately faints.

Although others insist on Father Patrick’s charm and kindness, Marie doesn’t trust him. There’s a reptilian edge to his charisma, and Marie is sure that she knows him. She sets out to prove that this holy figure is a relic from her painful past.

When it comes to structuring and pacing the layers of Marie’s obsession, Foumbi exercises an impressive restraint. Our Father, the Devil begins as a revenge thriller. A disturbing encounter in the retirement home kitchen leads Marie to abduct Father Patrick and house him in a secluded cottage. There, she proceeds to torment and interrogate him, reenacting scenes of abuse from her childhood. With time, Marie’s story comes into focus: The young chef was a child solider, subjected to nightmarish levels of torture masked as divine initiation.

Sadjo’s performance is crucial to sustaining Foumbi’s vision and control. The actress complicates Marie with physical cues, building a curious and potent character. The hands are critical. It’s through them that we see Marie’s efforts to subdue the psychological effects of her past, to shape self-loathing into a kind of power. Cinematographer Tinx Chan lets us in with his generous use of close-ups and Roy Clovis’ editing stitches these intimate angles with wider shots. When Marie rolls strips of steak the next day, her gloved hands delicately shoving filling into them, it contrasts with her aggressive grip on the colander she wielded to knock Patrick unconscious in a previous scene.

Our Father, the Devil explores the shifts between fragility and callousness to understand how the past lives in the body. The longer Marie holds the priest hostage, the more consumed she becomes by him. Her relationship with Patrick relies on trading reconstructions of their childhoods: Marie urges Patrick to confess his true identity, while his recollections depend on vehement denial. Together their flashbacks form a desperate, searching and deeply human mélange of memories. Somewhere in their chorus are notes of healing, and Foumbi’s narrative gently insists on making those louder.

In lesser hands, pulling on these curative threads would unravel the story, pushing Our Father, the Devil into unrealistically sentimental territory. But Foumbi creates a sophisticated tension within Marie’s journey, and forces the character to constantly renegotiate her goals. It also stages a confrontation between viewer, protagonist and hostage, asking: How do you soothe an aggrieved soul seeking salvation? The conclusions that Our Father, the Devil ultimately draws are powerful, redemptive and stirring.

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