Banel & Adama

Banel & Adama ★★★½

In Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s transfixing Banel & Adama, a tragic, evocative love story, there are no villains. That sounds odd considering a murder occurs, drought and famine arise, and people are forced to perform roles that incite personal misery. But it’s true. Sy avoids taking a side in a film concerning a young presumptive chief of his Senegalese village forced to choose between the woman he loves and the duty to his kin and town (Banel & Adama is one of two African films playing at Cannes Film Festival consumed with that conflict, Baloji Tshiani’s Omen being the other).

And yet, even without an extremist position, her supernatural narrative is no less sharp, no less incisive or bold. Sy, who is the second Black woman director in Cannes’ 76-edition history to compete for the festival’s Palme d’Or (following fellow French Senegalese director Mati Diop with Atlantics in 2019), teases out every second of her 87-minute run time, slowing our perception to match the angst these characters feel. After the death of his father and the sudden passing of his brother Yero – who fell down a well — the soft-spoken, yet devastatingly charming Adama (Mamadou Diallo) would rather not be chief. He wants to live his own life, in his own house, with his cattle and his headstrong wife Benal (Khady Mane) rather than assume such a heavy mantle. Banel craves leaving the village. She knows that remaining in the village means adhering to its customs, such as having a child: It’s a fear that consumes Banel.

What happens if Adama, however, doesn’t become chief? Adama’s traditional mother warns of dire consequences for the community if her son abdicates from his duties. His role is a covenant with a higher power. But Banel and Adama have their sights set on a ring of stone homes partly buried underneath the sand outside of town as their ideal home. For now, Adama appoints a temporary chief, which grants him time — in between herding his mother’s cattle — to dig the sand away from the prospective house. It’s a viable plan until a bevy of strange happenings take place.

For one, a drought occurs. Then the crops begin to die. Then the people begin to starve and die (you can’t watch this film without considering how its supernatural effects relate closely to our fear of climate change). No matter how many tragedies take place, Banel remains dead set on leaving the village. Her steadfastness is enough to dislike her, even despise her. Thankfully, Sy doesn’t resort to such easy characterizations.

The film acutely interrogates the pressure strict traditions can wreak on individuals without wholly denigrating the culture of said system. We see how Banel and Adama move from loving couple to embittered partners as their confinement in the village takes hold. We witness the mounting tragedies that take place as symptomatic of their selfish desires. And yet, we know that good people placed in a hopeless situation may turn to unthinkable acts to escape their plight. Banel’s horrific secret alters how we perceive her, causing viewers to further understand her complexities without totally absolving her. [full review via OkayAfrica]

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