(director/writer: Alice Diop; screenwriters: Marie N’Diaye/Amrita David; cinematographer: Claire Mathon; editor: Amrita David; cast: Kayije Kagame (Rama), Guslagie Malanga (Laurence Coly),  Aurelia Petit (Ms. Vaudenay),Thomas de Pourquery (Adrien), Valérie Dréville (The Judge), Salimata Kamate (Odille Diatta), Robert Cantarella (The Advocate General), Xavier Maly (Luke Dumontet); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Toufik Ayadi/Christophe Barral; Neon; 2022-France-in French with English subtitles)

“An engrossing courtroom drama about motherhood that is a sober search for the truth.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In her first narrative feature, the French documentary filmmaker Alice Diop directs an engrossing courtroom drama about motherhood that is a sober search for the truth. It follows the trial of a Franco-Senegalese mother who committed infanticide, and she writes the script using the transcripts from the court’s records. It’s a work of fiction that’s filmed like a documentary, and is astonishing in its scope.

In northern France, in 2013, in the small town of Berck-sur-mer, a 15-month old baby is found dead on the beach. The police are clueless about the child’s death. But their investigation leads them to a person of interest, A Senegalese woman. She is charged with murdering her daughter and goes to trial.

The French press promotes the story as a monstrous crime, and the French public closely follows the notorious trial with a passionate interest.

The trial takes place in the small town of Saint Omer, where the woman named Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga) doesn’t deny she murdered her daughter Lili. The court asks her why. Her story is that she left at 18, after living a happy life in Senegal, and came to live in Paris. While studying philosophy, she met a much older white man, Luke Dumontet (Xavier Maly). He was the father of her child. She then blames the death of the child on witchcraft, caused by her family still residing in Senegal.

The academic writer Rama (Kayije Kagame), who is pregnant, is anxiously following the troubling trial, and is deeply affected by what she has heard. Rama is apparently a double for the director. She imagines that this case is tied to the Medea myth, who was a baby killer from ancient times. For this Black woman to be humanized as a killer is what makes this film rare and of quality, whereby her gruesome act is given a voice here so the African immigrant to Paris at least has a chance to explain herself even if her act can’t be explained rationally or excused except to claim she became temporarily insane.

The sensitive film is less interested in the verdict than in exposing what the view of the public is to the mother killer, trying to decide whether she’s insane, evil or is only acting out from her foreign roots. It wants us to think deeply about a mother’s relationship to her children and be aware of the danger signs that are passed down from ancient times in this more sophisticated new world.

It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

REVIEWED ON 12/18/2022  GRADE: B+