Raffey Cassidy in "The Other Lamb"

Shame, Resistance, and the Abusive Messiah — “The Other Lamb”

Content Warning: the film depicts grooming, sexual assault

Selah is born into a cult. There are several wives and daughters, and the only man is their messiah. They work and feed and clothe their “Shepherd”. As daughters are groomed into wives, they are raped by him as a religious act. He tells them it’s an act of cleansing, earned after their first period.

Told it’s evidence of her impurity, Selah hides hers just as the cult is forced off their land. They search for a new home, the binds of belief she’s been sold cracking piece by piece.

“The Other Lamb” is a film at odds with how we watch film. It’s a horror film, but not in the way we understand horror films. Horror often defines a certain joy at being afraid. There’s a participatory thrill at subjecting ourselves to fear within a safe space. There’s none of that here. “The Other Lamb” can often have the look of a modern horror film, but it isn’t scary or frightening in its moments. Instead, it’s coldly and patiently horrifying in its concepts.

The film often feels obvious. Malgorzata Szumowska’s direction is full of obvious metaphors, obvious zoom-ins on intense characters, and shot after shot where those characters stare directly into the camera. It’s heavy-handed, but that’s not always a bad thing.

All those obvious pieces begin to swirl in a way I’ve rarely seen in film before. There’s so many of them that you lose track of which ones are literal. When everything’s hyperreal, what’s a metaphor and what’s an event we’re seeing? How much of an event that is taking place shifts into metaphor? The plot is never hard to track – it’s very straightforward. Whether a precise moment happens or even if it happens the way we see it is difficult to say.

Selah has an aimless anger and no direct mother to confide in. Her own mother died when she was a baby. She’s part of the cult and is deeply adherent to it. At the same time, she experiences it through just enough of a different angle that she doesn’t fit in as expected. She can’t see all of it at once, indoctrinated as she is, but she has a seed of doubt that may or may not be lurking in the others.

“The Other Lamb” takes a unique tack in providing us just a few too many metaphors, visions, meaningful stares, moments that might be literal or might not be – but it’s all presented so matter-of-factly, with such a deliberate pace, that it never feels overwhelming or badly assembled. It just feels contradictory.

As a viewer, it’s hard to take in everything at once. It’s a style that isn’t always natural. Most films try to hide their seams so that the experience of watching seems fluid. Here, those seams are a feature. The cracks of the movie’s moment-to-moment cogency are the cracks where Selah increasingly sees other versions of herself, other experiences, other possibilities.

It doesn’t matter what you’re able to assign literal value to, because you have a sense of seeing through enough of it. The metaphors and their meaning might be obvious, but when they’re taking place and what parts are real isn’t. In this way, the film echoes one experience of being gaslit. What’s happening is obvious, what’s real within it is blurred and fractured. The direction of things is clear. What to do about them in any given moment is an incapacitating thought. As a viewer, it reflects exactly the journey Selah is taking.

Raffey Cassidy’s performance as Selah isn’t showy. She’s mostly quiet, with moments of misdirected shame or rage. She takes everything in. She emulates what she should be, but there’s a semi-conscious recognition of the act that separates her. She tries being the follower, the bully, the dutiful acolyte, the problem child. She tests out different roles in a way the others wouldn’t try. It’s a performance that’s equal parts denial and processing what’s new to her.

The filmmaking is self-conscious and shoves too much at you in such an incredibly precise way. It’s a fine balance of pushing the viewer just far enough away from it to have you want to find your way back in. It feels just disjointed enough while being so deliberately paced that those moments of fragmentation become a part of the film’s visual language.

That might sound like excusing the film’s weaknesses, and some viewers will absolutely reject its storytelling sensibilities. It’s also a film that can trigger, not just by its subject matter but also through a presentation that reflects a cult member’s disjointed grappling with reality. When you have a main character who exists in a constant state of being gaslit, and an art film presentation that blends the real and unreal, the effect is experiential instead of academic.

In most films, we’re trying to plumb for meaning. The metaphors are complex and layered. We seek them out like archaeologists, dusting off bits and pieces and discussing whether this is a metaphor and what it means. “The Other Lamb” is obvious. The metaphors are in your face. They are clear and insistent. They are so numerous and alarming that it’s difficult to tell where illusion stops and reality begins. That is the life of Selah and all the women in the cult. The deliberate pace of her story is synonymous with a quiet rage, if only she learns it. The film’s tension is built on whether she legitimizes it, whether she recognizes it in herself before her “Shepherd” does.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “The Other Lamb” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Raffey Cassidy plays Selah. Denise Gough plays Sarah. Ailbhe Cowley plays Tamar in what’s probably one of the most overlooked performances last year. Eve Connolly plays Adriel, Isabelle Connolly plays Eloise, Jane Herbert plays Evelyn, and Aislin McGuckin plays Maria. Kelly Campbell, Eva Mullen, Esosa Ighodaro, Mallory Adams, Irene Kelleher, Grainne Good, Juliette Crosbie, Zara Devlin, and Phoebe Sheppard all play other named members of the cult.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They talk about their pasts, daily events, and their chores. However, given that all of this is in service to a cult built around one man – their “Shepherd” – it’s difficult to separate what really isn’t about him. For older members to talk about their pasts is a way of talking about what he took away. Their chores are all to sustain the “normalcy” of the cult he’s built, and they’re all ultimately in service to him. Their religion is him, so to talk about their spiritual life is to talk about him.

It makes this question extremely difficult to answer. Technically, the answer is yes. In the spirit of the question, the answer is rarely. That is part of the point, though. Their reality is artificially built around a need for him.

The film’s both written (C.S. McMullen) and directed (Malgorzata Szumowska) by women, and it never takes his side, equivocates, or makes an icon of the “Shepherd”. This avoidance might seem like the apparent thing to do, but it’s often a risk in the hands of male filmmakers, who tend to take a figure like this and mix in elements of power fantasy, admiration, or empathy.

It’s especially notable here because the story isn’t being told by an outsider who brings perspective into it; it centers on women who believe this man is their messiah. To craft a film that utterly denies him this iconography even for a second, while still telling their story from their perspective is…well, maybe it’s difficult, maybe it’s not, but it is an opportunity that’s been blown by male filmmakers time and again.

It’s also worth noting that Szumowska is a Polish director. Poland has been struggling with becoming a radicalized Catholic theocracy for years, and it’s been particularly notable in its erasure of women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. Szumowska has previously engaged aspects of this in films like “In the Name Of”, which tells the story of a gay priest. There’s a lot being said in “The Other Lamb” about the nature of theocracy, savior narratives, and how both demand women serve men in the first place.

You can watch “The Other Lamb” on Hulu with a subscription, or see where to rent it.

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