Srab Films, 2022
Alice Diop / Amrita David, Alice Diop, Zoé Galeron
📷 : Licensed from Shutterstock
Movies and TV shows with a lot of dialog
Movies and TV shows with heavy subjects
In 2000, Nicolas Cage played Memphis Raines, a master car thief in the film Gone in 60 Seconds. Incentivized by a big payday, he came out of retirement to steal 50 luxury cars in one night. I recall cheering for his success as he came close to hitting his number, and pondering how the filmmakers were able to manipulate my emotions in this way. How do writers and filmmakers convert the audience from sympathizing with protagonists to cheering for antagonists? There seems to be multiple ways, one of which is through flash for sure, but others are certainly breadth of story and depth of character. Saint Omer certainly fits the latter two.
Saint Omer is about a writer and literature professor who covers the courtroom drama of a woman who has pleaded guilty to leaving her 15-month old daughter to drown in the sea. Set in France with nearly the entire film situated in a courtroom, Rama, played by Kayije Kagame (H24, 24 h de la vie d'une femme, L'invité), is drawn to the case’s similarity to the Greek mythological story about Medea. Referred to in the film as “The Saint,” the story is about a woman who murders her children as revenge against her husband. Lacking an emotional connection with her mother, Rama carries a deep-seated fear that she too is capable of such an act.
I would not think that a film set largely in a formal space and dictated by rule and order could hold my attention for two hours. But the extensive soliloquies and in-depth interviews that make up the overarching foci of the film continually pull me in, arm over arm like tug of war. Unlike the game, I offer no resistance. Laurence Coly’s telling of her story, not through flashbacks but her own words, are compelling enough to make me empathize, even sympathize with her plight. Like everyone in the courtroom gallery, I become deeply immersed in her story to learn why – how she could have done something so unthinkable.
In France, even a guilty plea allows for getting answers to these questions, which is in stark contrast to the judicial process in the U.S. When a person pleads guilty in the U.S. court system, it is to avoid an inquiry into the crime and minimize the risk of extensive punishment – in theory anyway. Indeed, the guilty plea is entered and the person who is accused is summarily sentenced by the judge to some pre-negotiated terms.
In France, a plea of guilty does not circumvent an extensive court inquiry into the commission of the crime. On the contrary, a detailed examination is performed of the person’s life from birth to present, including family background, schooling, relationships, social life, psychological state, and even current experiences with incarceration. The process is akin to an oral defense of a thesis or dissertation. Instead of professors lobbing questions at the graduate candidate, the judge asks the defendant numerous and detailed questions informed by police reports, psychiatric examinations, and other investigations.
In Saint Omer, Laurence, played by Guslagie Malanda (My Friend Victoria, The Beast), stands in a designated box throughout the entirety of the proceedings. She responds to each question, even sometimes with a hesitating but eloquent “I don’t know,” essentially putting on her best defense with hopes of mitigating her punishment for the crime. To sum, the French courts aim to gain an appreciation not only for the context of the crime but also the context of Laurence’s life before sentencing her. This is very different from the U.S. system that operates in a way that suggests it cares very little about the circumstances of a crime, let alone the person who committed it – in some cases even if the person committed it.
It takes a brilliant piece of writing to convert an observer who initially dismisses a person because of their heinous deeds to one who sympathizes with said antagonist. But something happens when we get to know people — when we get inside the lives of people. Something changes. We come to appreciate that things are much more complex than they seem. We realize that context matters.
One of the enjoyable aspects of international films is the view it provides of cultural practices in other countries. France considers context in its efforts to understand criminal cases. It makes me ponder the difference it would make in the complexion of the criminal justice system in the U.S. and the prisons in which they house the people that are convicted. Saint Omer also helps to answer more personal questions concerning Rama’s worries about the kind of mother she can be. And that is: Does coming face to face with those things we fear most help us move forward?
Winning the grand jury prize and best debut feature in the Venice Film festival, Saint Omer was the only French film submitted for an Oscars nomination in the international films category. The strength of the feature is not surprising given writer/director Alice Diop’s 15 years as a documentarian presenting stories about the lives of people living on the periphery of French society. As she told The Guardian, “For 15 years, I’ve been making films from the margins, with a political intention of filming those margins – the banlieue, people who have been silenced, because those are the people I come from. That’s my territory, my history.” Saint Omer, which is based on a true story, resonated with Diop’s aesthetic priorities and filmmaking style due to its compelling, eloquent, and deeply personal story. We look forward to seeing more of her work.