The Other Lamb is about a religious cult, a society of women gathered around the worship of their Shepherd. It has the veneer of idyllic fulfillment until Shepherd, trying to keep their commune one step ahead of outside interference, takes them all to find a new settlement site. This is effectively a forced march, where all the sheen comes off the apple, and the main character, Selah, is forced to see Shepherd and her life for what it is.
Okay, so the first thing you gotta accept about this film if you are to enjoy it is the pacing. This is a slow nightmare. So there’s lots of shots staring intently into the woods, or gazing longingly at Shepherd. Once you get into its rhythm, the film is this slow burn of tension, as you wait for the other shoe to drop. Will Selah submit to a life she is increasingly aware masks dark truths because it is what she has always wanted up until this point? Or will she leave, turn towards the complete unknown?
The film deals heavily with Christian symbolism, the sheep, the sacrifice of the lamb, menstrual blood as the physical manifestation of Eve’s sin and the weakness of women towards corruption. You can see echoes of things like The Handmaid’s Tale, with the ‘wives’ all in red, and the ‘daughters’ all in blue. Shepherd tells them he has given them sisterhood, reminiscent of how Gilead is described as a society of women. Their status and power struggles take up most of the focus of their society, disguising the lie at the heart of things, that everything they do is for the attention, approval and comfort of a man.
Saleh has only ever known life in commune, being brought there as a young child, and now as she reaches sexual maturity, she aches with longing to become Shepherd’s wife. His gaze is seen as profoundly erotic, his touch seems to cause physical ecstasy. Saleh is devout, like a sunflower turned towards him as the sun. She sees being with him as complete religious, emotional and sexual fulfillment.
Then she gets her period on the same day a lamb is stillborn while she tends the flock. And the experience is so traumatic for her, she begins to question everything, herself and Shepherd included. And as the forced march to a new settlement site brings all of Shepherd’s worst character out into the open, the question of what will she do with this new-found knowledge and experience begins to burn.
Many films will try to make cult life weird enough that the actual religions they are based on get off scott free, so divergent are they from the ‘true’ religion. The Other Lamb is not life that. This is Christianity in microcosm. Shepherd might not be THE Jesus, but he certainly acts like it and desires the same worship. All the regnant hardships the women face are in the Bible, the shunning of menstruating women, the notion of their inferiority, their submission to their husbands, their lack of protection from marital rape and domestic abuse. Christianity is not let off the hook in this story.
Another thing I like about this movie was the use of visual themes. Obviously there is repeated use of the image of the sheep and the ram, the blood of sacrifice and menstruation. But also just stuff like the church being a cordoned-off section of the forest, shaped with string wrapped around the trees. From a distance it is almost transparent, and gives the illusion of freedom, but up close there is no possibility of going in any direction other than that established by Shepherd.
Kudos to Michiel Huisman (of Treme, Orphan Black, and Game of Thrones fame) on making a profoundly erotic and subtlety malevolent Shepherd. And Raffey Cassidy, who makes Selah’s inner journey vividly apparent with sparse dialogue.