'Banel & Adama' review: Love and duty collide in visually arresting, narratively oblique debut set in Senegal

‘Banel & Adama’ review: Love and duty collide in visually arresting, narratively oblique debut set in Senegal

The notebook bears the mark of obsession: the names Banel and Adama are recorded dozens of times on pages in delicate italics. The scribe is Banel (Khady Mane), a changeable and expressive young woman caught up in her love for Adama (Mamadou Diallo). She whispers their names to herself like a witch casting a spell: “Banel and Adama, Banel and Adama, Banel and Adama.” Their union, she tells people in their small village in northern Senegal, is the work of fate.

It’s really no secret that Banel loves Adama. In the opening scenes of Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s debut film, visually appealing but narratively oblique Banel & Adams, we see the pair excavating two houses buried under layers of sand. They are working for a dream, working under the oppressive sun so they can build a home and a life outside the village. Other flashes of daily routine testify to the depth of their affection, with conspiratorial smiles, expectant looks and loving caresses exchanged. Their performances are strange for people traditionally contained in their village. Others disapprove of the couple but reserve a particular level of contempt for Banel.

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Banel & Adams

The bottom line

An incredibly conjured world that needs a sharper story.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Launch: Khady Mane, Mamadou Diallo, Best of Binta Root Sy
Director-writer: Ramata-Toulaye Sy

1 hour and 27 minutes

Banel rejects the convention, which raises suspicions among the villagers. Why is she sitting cross-legged like men instead of lying down like women? Why doesn’t she want to do the laundry or tend the field like the other wives? How is it possible, a year into her marriage to Adama, that you are next in line to be her boss, that Banel is still childless? These questions follow the pair like flies, buzzing around as they take care of their lives. Banel and Adama ignore the looks and disapproving remarks because their love is enough. But the stakes of their relationship, as presented on screen, never quite arrive. With Banel & Adams, Ramata-Toulaye Sy has conjured up an extraordinary world in need of a sharper story.

The director’s vision is unmistakably beautiful. Sy paints breathtaking scenes with his camera, demonstrating a beautiful way of seeing the world. Colors possess new levels of personality: the blue of the river where Adama and Banel bathe at the beginning of the film shimmers in the scorching sun. There’s a mischief in the yellow of Banel’s shirt as we see her watching Adama meet up with the men of the village, all dressed in complementary shades of blue. They are trying to get him to take the position of chief, an offer he declined in an earlier scene due to his love for Banel. Adama, who Diallo plays with quiet innocence, doesn’t want the responsibility.

That decision has consequences. After Adama refuses the role of leader, catastrophic events begin to take place in the village. A prolonged drought kills all livestock, forcing men to leave their homes to find work elsewhere. People start dying, instigating a constant funeral procession, which Adama must preside over. This destruction is rendered with devastating beauty and gestures towards the deleterious effects of climate change in countries like Senegal. Sy, together with DP Amine Berrada and a laconic score by composer Bachar Mar-Khalifé, nimbly convey the progression of the village’s ruin. Arid conditions drain the sand of its color, turning what was once a desaturated orange almost white. The bodies of cattle decompose, leaving the skin brittle and parched. Brown mounds mark the site of newly dug graves.

The village’s decline weakens the relationship between Banel and Adama, as the latter finds himself increasingly convinced that refusing his post has cursed his people. When Adama spends more time tending to his duties, it leaves Banel to suffer the judgmental stares of the other villagers and feed his paranoid thoughts. His love for Adama and anger at his absence fuel his anger, which Mane plays with chilling precision. Watching Banel unravel is one of the coolest parts of Sy’s film. The mercurial character is reminiscent of the dull women of novels like that of Toni Morrison Gannet and that of Helen Oyeyemi boy, snow, bird, a reinterpretation of “Snow White”. Like those women, Banel embodies a fierce and uncompromising independence, an intimidating self-confidence, and a refreshingly expressive emotional range driven by desire for her.

It’s clear that Banel will go to great lengths to keep Adama to himself, so it’s disappointing that Adama and Banel’s breakup relationship doesn’t inspire the same levels of curiosity. Sy spends so much time showing the disintegration of the village that the couple she brought us there lose out. The film falls into a kind of stupor and languid pace, getting lost in its own images.

The return to Banel and Adama revives the pace and restores some of the tension. In one of the creepiest scenes, Banel, fed up with Adama’s carelessness, accompanies his lover to the location of their dream house. She orders him to dig and he does until his hands are bleeding. There is fierce despair in that moment, a flash of terror on Banel’s face and a flash of fear on Adama’s. Complicate their romance and rekindle our interest in Banel & Adams reminding us that love is its own kind of horror.