Movies about religious cults used to be a relatively rare occurrence. They’ve grown more frequent of late, however, surely sending up some kind of emergency flare to illuminate disturbing general cultural trends. “The Other Lamb” is just one of several such films at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, and as the English-language debut of Polish helmer Malgorzata Szumowska (“Mug,” “Body,” “Elles”) may have the best shot among them at finding a substantial audience beyond the festival circuit.
Still, this often visually striking tale of an all-female cult in thrall to its lone-male leader is very much art-house fare — slowly paced, terse with character and narrative insight. In the end, the director and screenwriter Catherine S. McMullen don’t really seem to be saying anything more complicated than the basic notion that blind submission to a patriarch is bad news for women, children and probably men as well. Still, the film’s poetical aesthetics cast a spell that may intoxicate some viewers and critics.
We don’t learn much about the history of “The Flock,” a group of about 20 women living as apparent forest squatters in what seems meant to be the Pacific Northwest. (Though the film was shot in rural Ireland, the actors all perform with American accents.) The sun to their planets is “the Shepherd” (Dutch thesp Michiel Huisman, best known here for several recent cable series including “Game of Thrones”), who’s got the Jesus Christ Superstar look down. He acts like a rock god in other ways as well — these women worship him with their bodies as well as their faith, as testified by the number of exclusively female children they’ve brought into the tribe. Those offspring have never known any other life, being kept at a fearful safe distance from mainstream society’s “rot of the world.”
Our focus is on teenage Selah (Raffey Cassidy from “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and “Tomorrowland”), a teen whose mother died in childbirth. She’s a favorite with the Shepherd, not just for her beauty, but because her “purity” hasn’t yet been tainted by menstruation. (Though this sect does not appear to be particularly Christian, there is nonetheless much citing of “Eve’s sin.”) Yet despite her complete ignorance of secular values, Selah is beginning to question community ways, as generally determined by the Shepherd’s arbitrary and punitive whims. When a visit by local law enforcement suggests the Flock’s residency here is an illegality that will no longer be tolerated, their leader announces they must find a “new Eden” to dwell in, effective immediately.
The ensuing arduous journey on foot only underlines Selah’s rebelliousness, as she sees how fallible the Shepherd is: Some of his decisions take a terrible toll. The cruelty beneath his surface charisma doesn’t come out in particularly surprising or complex ways, nor does the vague belief system he offers seem anything more than generically self-serving. This is problematic, because “The Other Lamb” sits uneasily between psychological realism and something more fable-like.
We’re told the older women were “broken” when they joined up, seemingly so damaged by life they were willing to place complete trust in one self-appointed Messianic figure. But despite no characters save the two leads (plus Denise Gough as an older devotee turned semi-outcast) being given any real dimensionality, the members of this “Sisterhood” don’t seem dull or frightened enough to surrender so much control, particularly when the Shepherd grows abusive. Huisman is a skilled actor and attractive specimen, but whether deliberately or not, he doesn’t project the kind of magnetism here that might make so many forswear self-determination to serve his puerile alpha male fantasies.
So there’s not a lot of punch to the eventual disasters that befall this group, or the final coup d’état — events that in any case are all staged as emotionally distanced formal tableaux, when shown at all. In DP Michal Englert’s hands, “The Other Lamb” has a quantity of lovely, sometimes rapturous images. The wives in their red frontier-style dresses and the daughters in their blue ones comprise a striking sight against the beautifully photographed scenery. But there’s also way too much time wasted on actors staring meaningfully into the middle distance, writhing slo-mo in diaphanous white gowns underwater, and so forth.
After a while, all these visual poetics start to feel like a pretentious means of suggesting enigmatic depth where there really is none. The Shepherd is too patently a false idol to warrant this much mysterioso atmosphere, and the movie’s indictment of such a sitting-duck target lacks power, even as metaphor.
Nonetheless, “The Other Lamb” (which does, indeed, feature quite a number of winsome sheep) is often so arrestingly pretty to behold that some viewers may well decide its beauty offers profundity enough. Editor Jaroslaw Kaminski provides just the right tempo so the spare story feels more hypnotic than torpid, and Pawel Mykietyn’s primarily chamber-string score heightens the rarefied mood.