In an era where “bigger is better”, it’s always refreshing to see a simple story that’s well told. Such is the case with Yared Zeleke’s debut feature Lamb, Ethiopia’s official selection for this year’s Oscars. This tenderly wrought tale follows a young boy and his lamb, growing up in a world that threatens to tear them apart.
Lamb tells the story of Ephraim (Rediat Amare), a young Ethiopian boy who lives with his father and his beloved lamb. Despite the unfortunate passing of his mother, he leads a generally happy life, fulfilled by his father’s love and his companionship with his pet. But things will soon change for him, as a prolonged drought forces him to be separated from his father and left in the care of relatives in a faraway land. The adjustment is hard for him, as he comes under the tyranny of an uncle who insists that he work on the farm rather than occupy himself with the more feminine task of cooking, a talent and hobby he enjoys. Ephraim puts up some resistance as he vows to sell his delicious meals to fund his return home. But things get even more complicated when he learns that his lamb is expected to be put to slaughter. As his escape plan becomes more urgent, he gets a rude awakening about growing up in an unsentimental world.
Made with minimalist grace and an eye for beauty, it’s immediately clear why Lamb earned the distinction of being the first Ethiopian film to screen in competition at Cannes. Indeed, cinematographer Josée Deshaies crafts some of the most vivid imagery I’ve seen on film, using the rich colors of the lush landscape and the people themselves to good effect. And together with an absolutely enchanting score Christophe Chassol, the film takes on a fable-like quality, complete with a wondrous forbidden forest that looks almost magical.
Zeleke’s narrative is decidedly less grand however. With rolling hills as far as the eye can see, the setting would seem ideal for a 3-hour epic adventure. But Zeleke keeps the scope small and keenly focused on Emphraim and his coming-of-age journey, never rushing the pacing to create any empty thrills.
Luckily, Ephraim – and the actor playing him – is compelling in his own right. His sweet nature reels you in to his soul, where you’ll find a boy who is vulnerable yet quietly defiant. As he endures heartbreak over losing his family, as well as subsequent bullying and patriarchal ridicule, we share in his hopes and fears. Lamb may not tell the most innovative story, but its sympathetic protagonist and strong craft make for beautiful elemental cinema.