Food is a currency in “Our Father, the Devil” where Marie (Babetida Sadjo) has accrued quite a bit of goodwill with her cooking at the retirement home where she works as a chef, able to make tamp down the spices for those who lost their sense of taste long ago and cook a perfect duck confit for the former chef Jeanne (Martine Amisse), who stays largely away from the main dining room, content to take her meals in a luxe suite. If Marie makes Jeanne feel at home, Jeanne returns the favor, letting the Rwandan refugee stay in her unoccupied countryside cabin and intends to leave her a lot more in her will, giving Marie a future to look forward to while in the present she can’t ever take a break when the place she works is short-staffed.
Yet the smell of trouble wafts through the air in Ellie Foumbi’s assured debut feature when Marie shows up at work and is shaken upon the arrival of a new chaplain (Souleymane Sy Savane) at the home, clearly chilled by the sound of his voice, but destabilized even more by his request for a second piece of chicken in the buffet line – “the bigger piece,” he insists when in her view he hasn’t offered anything in return. Despite his fire-and-brimstone conviction, his words come off as hollow for reasons that gradually reveal themselves in the taut drama, which takes a turn when Father Patrick asks for a bit too much one night, requesting some stew after hours. His insistence that he doesn’t want to inconvenience Marie by heating it up on the stove seems even more patronizing and her blood boils as she comes to suspect he’s a former warlord, responsible for a massacre in her village and she finds a way to turn the tables on him without being completely sure he’s who she thinks he is.
It takes a while for the two to have an honest conversation with one another, but Foumbi cleverly uncovers another truth well before Marie decides to hold Father Patrick captive in secret, observing how she’s able to compartmentalize the violence she finds she’s capable of committing whether you wonder if he has done the same. The stoic Sadjo is captivatingly inscrutable, making it easy to understand why Marie is so alluring to a local bartender (Franck Saurel) she starts to see and so dangerous to the priest and rarely allows herself to show emotion but unable to control it when she does. She sets the tone for a film where ambiguity becomes an apt description for living with unfathomable tragedy, having to carry on when the mere fact of surviving another day brings some pain knowing others haven’t and Marie has a profound dilemma in whether to continue a cycle or to break it, even if she’s more than justified in her position. For as ugly a situation as the one “Our Father, the Devil” is built around, Foumbi elegantly lays out its inherent complexities in what is both an impressive feat of storytelling and true to characters who take their lives one step at a time, not letting the world know how heavy each one is.
“Our Father, the Devil” will screen again at Tribeca on June 15th at 5:45 pm at the Cinepolis Chelsea, June 18th at 7 pm at the Village East and June 19th at 5:45 pm at the Cinepolis Chelsea.