A film about patriarchy and the flimsy lie of male superiority that props up its thin structure.
At this juncture, it’s an odd relief to watch a movie about a group of people in social isolation, even one as beautiful, intense and disturbing as director Malgorzata Szumowska and writer Catherine S. McMullen’s The Other Lamb. A psychological thriller by way of a fairy tale, the film centers on Selah (Raffey Cassidy), a young woman on the cusp of puberty who lives in the cult she was born into. The group is led by Shepherd (Michiel Huisman), a handsome, charismatic man who has divided the women who follow him into “wives” and “daughters,” designated by the colors of the full-length dresses they wear. Like any cult leader worth the title, Shepherd controls the narrative of his flock. No one else is allowed to tell stories, though Selah needs reminding of this fact on occasion.
Shepherd keeps his women in an encampment by a lake where they live in cabins, cook, clean and wait for the next sermon. Thin white rope has been used build the walls and ceilings of the area of worship, but it looks more like an elegant prison where Shepherd solidifies his hold on these women and children. There are no men. “There can only be one ram in a flock,” as one wife says.
There aren’t many markers of time like cellphones, computers, television, radio or cars. These people are a society unto themselves, which leads one to wonder exactly what apocalypse may have befallen humanity. With no distractions but chores and the spirituals they sing, the women’s entire devotion is focused on Shepherd. Selah is always watching him, even when she is supposed to be sleeping, but her constant gaze leads to questions.
Szumowska and cinematographer Michal Englert shoot in vivid color, doing for rural Ireland what Peter Jackson did for New Zealand in terms of a fantasy palette. But the texture of the film transforms as the outside world encroaches on Shepherd’s small community and Selah’s questions lead to self-awareness. She is up at night watching Shepherd when a police cruiser arrives to evict the prophet and his flock from where they are squatting. The next day, Shepherd turns this expulsion into a holy pilgrimage to Eden, and only Selah knows it’s a lie. Meanwhile, some of the older wives are whispering truths to her, offering warnings about what life will be like when she finally menstruates and Shepherd promotes her from daughter to wife.
Luminous with features made of strong angles and edges, Cassidy creates a striking portrait of a woman slowly boiling into rage. She expresses so much of her work in silence, giving life to her interrogation through her eyes. The cult keeps a flock of lamb and she is given the chore to tend them, a job of great importance since the animals provide wool and meat. But it also gives Selah a greater sense of what it means to care for other living things. The death of one ewe devastates her, but she sees no such care from Shepherd toward the women he keeps. She also develops an antagonistic relationship with the flock’s lone ram, an act of symbolism that represents so much of this film’s currency.
Szumowska and McMullen are not subtle in their intentions. This is a film about patriarchy and the flimsy lie of male superiority that props up its thin structure. Shepherd is less a character than a philosophy given form, and the more he’s challenged the more violent he becomes. When his ability to gaslight wanes during the arduous sojourn he forces on the women, he becomes violent to deadly ends. The hierarchy of the wives functions as an intergenerational critique of female relationships. The older women compromised with Shepherd to make one kind of a world while Selah as catalyst wants a different, freer existence for her peers. The sound of Selah’s screams are always removed from the film. We see her contorted features, but are refused the visceral exclamation and given silence or another sound in its stead. That seems to be the overall meaning of the movie. Though it ends quietly, it is a silent scream telling us that representation matters. The people who control the narrative can shatter existing structures and change the world.