A young boy left in the care of relations struggles in his new surroundings in Yared Zeleke’s attractive, multilayered debut, “Lamb.” Handsomely shot in the mountainous countryside of Ethiopia, the pic scores points for shying away from one-dimensional female characterizations, and while the men don’t manage to escape from certain stereotypes to the same degree, the classic storytelling and deeply sympathetic junior protag, combined with the relative novelty of onscreen depictions of Ethiopian life, should earn “Lamb” a welcoming place on fest programs. Modest international sales are also possible following its Cannes premiere.
A beautiful opening shot, of a hand on a fleecy brown flank, introduces Ephraim (Rediat Amare), 9, and his cade lamb, Chuni. The boy’s father, Abraham (Indris Mohamed), tells his son they have to move, since the drought that caused the death of Ephraim’s mother shows no sign of ending. Abraham will seek work in Addis Ababa, but first he leaves his child with the family of aunt Emama (Welela Assefa) and her adult son, Solomon (Surafel Teka).
Ephraim’s arrival isn’t exactly greeted with joy: He’s another mouth to feed, and on top of everything he’s a lousy farmhand, infuriating the short-tempered Solomon when he finds the boy prefers the womanly task of cooking to plowing the rocky fields. Solomon’s wife, Azeb (Rahel Teshome), is more lenient, yet she has other concerns, since her daughter is ill and Solomon’s daughter from a previous marriage, Tsion (Kidist Siyum), does little apart from reading.
Emama and Azeb are allies of sorts for Ephraim, yet the boy yearns for the demonstrable warmth of his late mother and the paternal affection of his absent father. Desperate to return home, he conceives the idea of making and selling lentil samosas in the market to earn enough money for the bus fare back, but he’s bullied by local kids who pick on the outsider. When Solomon insists Chuni will have to be sacrificed for the Feast of the Holy Cross, Ephraim needs to act.
Zeleke brings a nuanced conception of character to his female figures, representing the three ages of womanhood. There’s Emama, grandly sitting ruling over her hearth, doling out light punishment and occasional praise; she expects deference but isn’t blind to the family’s restlessness. Azeb isn’t a cookie-cutter harridan stepmother, but rather a kind woman with multiple pressures and a need to prioritize her sick child — she’s affectionate toward Ephraim, in a limited manner, but can’t give him the demonstrable love he craves.
Tsion is the strongest-willed figure, a highly intelligent teen aware that knowledge is her way out of the limited chances afforded by village life, and struggling with conceptions of what young women should and shouldn’t do. She’s a hesitant confederate to Ephraim, yet her closer blood ties with the family, as well as her unflappable confidence, mean she’s in a better position to negotiate a way out than he can. Solomon is less carefully drawn, acting basically as a foil to Ephraim’s need to protect his lamb and escape back home.
Notwithstanding a weak ending, “Lamb” provides a welcome insider view of a certain element of rural Ethiopian life, influenced in non-demonstrable ways by the country’s turbulent political situation, but not in a way that makes the pic a polemical tract. Instead, it’s a delicately satisfying drama with coming-of-age elements, deeply sympathetic to its characters and very much attuned to the landscape around them.
Visuals by d.p. Josee Deshaies (“Saint Laurent”) are a pleasing mix between the limited space inside the family’s tukul (hut) and the expansive, verdant mountains of northern Ethiopia. Interiors are lit to ensure maximum pictorial readability without feeling artificial. Music, however, is used with less certainty, and has a sweet, generic quality not always in keeping with the action.