Producers: Stephanie Wilcox, David Lancaster, Aoife O’Sullivan, Tristan Orpen Lynch and Marie Gade Denesson Director: Malgorzata Szumowska Screenplay: Catherine S. McMullen Cast: Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman, Denise Gough, Kelly Campbell, Eve Connolly, Isabelle Connolly, Ailbhe Cowley, Charlotte Moore, Juliette Crosbie, Jane Herbert, Aislin McGuckin, Kelly Campbell, Eva Mullen, Esosa Ighodaro, Maria Oxley Boardman, Mallory Adams, Irene Kelleher, Grainne Good, Zara Devlin, Aisling Doyle and Phoebe Sheppard Distributor: IFC Midnight Films
Visually remarkable but narratively rather dull, Malgorzata Szumowska’s feminist coming-of-age fable, set within an oppressive cult, is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Michal Englert, but hobbled by sluggish pacing and overemphatic symbolism.
The heroine of the piece is Selah (Raffey Cassidy), a member of an all-woman sect called the Flock, led by a Messianic figure who calls himself The Shepherd (Michiel Huisman), though at one point we learn that Michael is his actual name. The group raises sheep in some remote, mountainous, forested region, apparently in the Pacific Northwest though the film was shot in rural Ireland; and the animals are sometimes used as sacrifices, in the course of which the Shepherd smears the victim’s blood on the faces of the women as they madly scream out their fidelity to him. (Piercing shrieks, viewers should be warned, are fairly frequent in the film.)
Selah is one of the biological daughters of the Shepherd, who physically seems a cross between Jesus Christ and Charles Manson. She and the others like her wear long blue dresses (and in some rituals, white robes) to distinguish them from the Wives, who wear burgundy ones.
Selah’s mother died in childbirth, so she has become somewhat dependent on Sarah (Denis Gough), an older woman who is the group’s outcast, tending to girls as they begin experiencing the onset of menstruation, marked by what the Shepherd apparently views as the curse of blood (shades of “Carrie”), an abomination in his eyes.
Selah is not yet at that point, however, and as such she has become increasingly irresistible to the lascivious cult leader, for whom the concept of incest does not appear to be an impediment to the fulfillment of his desires. But Selah is starting to question the truth of his self-centered teachings, and awful dreams and visions—centered on lambs and sheep, with a prominent ram—accelerate her move to what he would see as heresy (something that he deals with brutally).
Nonetheless things continue with relative stability in their makeshift camp, the center of which is the Shepherd’s trailer, until the police arrive to demand that they move on. They must take a long, arduous trek over difficult terrain as the Shepherd seeks their new “Eden,” inflicting suffering on his flock—some of whom are pregnant—in the process. An interlude at an abandoned cabin proves an important stage in Selah’s evolution, and when the group reaches the Shepherd’s new paradise, her rage will lead to a final tableau that will terrify the local cops.
Watching “The Other Lamb,” one might well be reminded of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but so long as one concentrates on the images, the film has a hallucinatory quality that’s most impressive. The Irish landscapes are magnificent, and Englert uses them to the full, sometimes employing tricks of perspective that make them even more so; his compositions are often so stunning that individual frames could easily serve as perfectly composed museum pieces. Englert, Szumowska, production designer Ferdia Murphy and editor Jaroslaw Kaminski also join forces to fashion dream sequences that are quite striking, made more so by the brooding score of Pawel Mykietyn and Rafael Leloup (though the introduction of a pop tune at one point is jarring).
The cast are, of course, an integral part of the visual scheme, but they also give an underlying emotional core to the story. Cassidy anchors things with an intense turn as Selah, but Huisman is a convincing menace and Gough a fraught pariah, while the supporting cast etch distinctive portraits of submission (and competition).
But despite the technical mastery of the film, in narrative terms it comes off as rather threadbare when it isn’t being deliberately obscure. The symbolism of the dream sequences, for instance, manages to be simultaneously heavy-handed and murky (the murkiness is certainly absent from the final tableau, which is crushingly obvious), and the import of a sequence shown a couple of times during the cult’s journey, in which a sullen girl looking very much like Selah but for her clothes passes by the group in a car, with their eyes locking, isn’t at all clear. Is the “modern” girl supposed to be Selah, and the overarching fable of the cult her realization of how she and other women are treated? Or is the episode a “realistic” one that pushes Selah’s doubts about the Shepherd to their conclusion?
Perhaps ambiguity is the point. But in the end it doesn’t work. “The Other Lamb” is impressive as a visual exercise, but as a fable of female empowerment it’s a disappointment, at once familiar and pretentious.