Review: ‘Saint Omer’

Alice Diop's Powerful Courtroom Drama Tackles Race, Motherhood, And Injustice

Here in the States, courtroom dramas tend to be, well, pretty exhausting. They devolve into sides shouting at one another, either at an obviously innocent or obviously guilty party. And the whole thing gets wrapped up with either cheers of joy or shrieks of anguish. Very histrionic, to say the least. Alice Diop’s powerful drama Saint Omer is the total opposite, evoking strong emotions over biases in the legal system, fears of motherhood, and gender inequality.

An understated film that largely takes place in a quiet French courtroom, Saint Omer was directed and co-written by Diop. Inspired by her obsession with a real-life case involving a Senegalese woman much like herself, Diop decided to use that fascination and turn it into a feature film, her directorial debut. The Diop stand-in is Rama (Kayije Kagame), a literature professor who plans to write a book about the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga) in the town of Saint-Omer. The crime committed by Coly is unspeakable, a shocking betrayal by a mother to her child. But there are harsh circumstances that led to this terrible act.

The theatricality we are used to with legal dramas is completely stripped away. Coly stands there by herself in front of everyone, calmly taking questions that tear into her troubled past like a hot knife through butter. Her entire life exposed, raw and ugly, it makes us uncomfortable to watch as she is broken down systematically by accusations, some overt and some implied, shamed by racist suggestions, and more. Through it all, Malanga gives an incredible physical performance. In keeping with the minimalist nature of the film, she never says more than is necessary, but expresses herself in subtle gesture that show Coly’s fading will to endure.

Throughout Coly’s testimony, Rama sits quietly and watches, finding common bond with the woman she has never met or spoken to. As another Senegalese woman struggling with the weight of family expectations, a complicated interracial relationship, and motherhood, Rama finds herself drawn further into the case. The connection between Rama and Coly is forged even though they share barely more than a glance at one another. It’s the strength of Diop’s filmmaking that we also feel this tie between the women.

And yet, Saint Omer is not without its faults as Diop offers only a surface-level view of Rama and Coly. We know their situations, their struggles, but we don’t get to see them cope. This is especially true of Rama, who spends most of the film silently observing. Our window into her life happens early and briefly, but it’s only enough for a sketchy outline of who she is. Still, Saint Omer is an impressive, emotionally gripping experience that will speak most passionately to women who are shouldering their own burdens.

Saint Omer is open in theaters now.

Saint Omer
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.