First, the sober facts of the case, more shocking than you’ll find in most fiction: In November 2013, a mother took a train from Paris to the northern French coast, along with her 15-month-old daughter. I entered a hotel, went down to the water at night, fed the hungry child, and let her drown at high tide.
That mother, Fabian Capo, went on trial in 2016, confessing to murder and talking about sorcery and witchcraft, but adding, “Nothing made sense in this story.”
Sitting in the courtroom was French director Alice Diop. Like Kabo a woman of Senegalese descent, Diop had been fascinated by the case ever since she saw a grainy surveillance photo in a newspaper and felt “I know her well, I know myself.” She spent days sitting in the courtroom, staring at the woman in front of her, seeking to understand the impossible.
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What emerged from that experience was magic “Saint-Omer,” Diop’s first film, but in fact it is a film that exists somewhere in the space between documentary narrative and screenplay, between fact and fiction. Most importantly, it is a film so original that one feels that only Diop could have made it or even conceived it.
Whether it answers the question a sympathetic defense attorney is asking the jury to consider—not if, but why—is less clear. But the film, which Diop co-wrote with Amrita David and Marie Ndiaye, peels back several layers with just its questioning — the layers of race, gender, motherhood, and the lasting effects of French colonialism, for starters — in the end, you’ll likely feel like the answer isn’t the real point.
Diop begins with a short and sweet scene on a dark beach, a woman walking while carrying something, while the distant waves roar. It turns out that the scene was a dream experienced by Rama, a French novelist and professor, also of Senegalese descent. Rama is the agent of Diop. She has developed an obsession with the story of infanticide, and wants to base her next novel on it.
Soon, Rama (the soulful Kaiji Kagami), as Diop, travels to the coast and settles on a seat in a wood-paneled courtroom (the film’s set was next to the real courtroom) where the defendant, Lawrence Colley, is a fictional situation for Kabu, facing a methodical but Skeptic (Valerie Dreiville).
Lawrence isn’t the type of defendant anyone would expect — and that’s part of what’s so fascinating and disturbing. She is highly educated, a fact that seems surprising to the media and others. Even the editor of Rama’s Book in Paris told her he had heard Lawrence speak in a “sophisticated” manner; Rama replied that she spoke like any other educated woman.
We learn that Lawrence’s mother in Senegal was obsessed with her education and ability to develop, and would not allow her daughter to speak her native Wolof language, only French. She witnessed her “obsession with my success tormenting me”. (In a heartbreaking moment, her mother, attending the trial, buys every newspaper she can, and is so proud that her daughter is making headlines.) As for her father, he cut ties and stopped funding her studies in France when she switched from law to philosophy.
Lacking the resources to survive, Lawrence is finally forced to drop her studies and move in with her much older white boyfriend, Luke, who has hidden their relationship from his family. When she became pregnant, she kept the baby against Locke’s wishes, withdrawing completely from the world. When Locke is on the stand, the judge explains how this supposedly devoted father didn’t come to the baby’s funeral—he was too far away, the man complains. “It was just too abstract for me.”
All testimonials are from the official record, presented by Goslaji Malanda as a calm, perfectly focused Lawrence, and a supporting cast of theatrical actors. The spectators are played by the local townspeople, and the proceedings are filmed in a chronological manner, all contributing to a documentary style feel.
But unlike the documentary, we are witnessing it all in spite of Rama. She is horrified not only by crime but by prejudices, large and small, directed at Lawrence—some that she experiences herself, as a woman, as a woman of color, as an academic in a white world—and as a daughter, with a mother who often treats her selfishly.
There is another similarity between Rama and Lawrence: Rama is pregnant. (Diop herself was the mother of a young child during the experience, and said the experience helped her with the healing process. postpartum depression). One night with her partner, Rama tells him, “I’m afraid of being like her.” She explains that it is her mother who is talking about her. or is it?
Someone said at the beginning of the film: “I hope this trial will give me an answer.” If you think it is Rama or the Judge then you are wrong. It’s Lawrence herself, who admitted in a stunned courtroom that she didn’t have a structured explanation up her sleeve.
Likewise, Diop refuses to wrap her film in an elegant bow. In fact, she didn’t even tell us which sentence Capo received, if any (there’s Google for that). But in her own unique way, she took us down the emotional, social, and ethical cracks in this real-life issue. More than any documentary. And we are much better for that.
“Saint Omer,” an excellent release, was rated by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some thematic elements and concise strong language.” Show duration: 122 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
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