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‘Banel & Adama’ Review: Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s Debut Film Is Striking And Sophisticated – Cannes Film Festival

“You cannot go against your destiny,” 18-year-old Banel is warned in Banel & Adama (Banel e Adama), a visually striking and deceptively heavy debut from French-Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy, only the second Black woman to make it into the Cannes Competition since Mati Diop’s Atlantics in 2019. At first sight, Sy’s film seems a bit of an outlier in a lineup sprinkled with veterans, and the extra scrutiny that comes with a Competition slot may well work against it. But it’s entirely possible that it might strike a chord with the jury, notably Rungano Nyoni, whose debut I Am Not a Witch took a similarly subversive and sophisticated approach to themes of African tradition and folklore.

Banel, played by the revelatory Khady Mane, is a romantic, and when we meet her she is hopelessly in love with Adama (Mamadou Diallo), her childhood sweetheart. Banel was once promised to another man, whom she married, but after his premature death, she believes she was given a second chance by God. Adama is a good and loyal husband, so much so that he is willing to give up his role as the village chief, a responsibility handed down through his bloodline. Banel encourages Adama to leave the remote village they have lived in all their lives, and start afresh in a nearby ghost town.

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Every day they get together to dig some of the long-lost houses that lie hidden under the sand, but when a drought strikes, Adama becomes preoccupied with his cattle. The heat is literally killing them, and the lack of rain is sending prices soaring in the local region. Adama tries to reason with Banel, but she won’t listen to him, complaining that he’s abandoning her and that she never sees him. The villagers, meanwhile, are on her case: her twin brother tells her that the houses in the sand are cursed and that no good can come of it, while the women want to know why she isn’t pregnant after over a whole year or so of marriage (“Adama will take a second wife”).

There’s a clash here of myth and modernity, and Banel definitely wants the latter, lecturing a local girl that all men are the same — except for her Adama. It’s a spiteful outburst that shows her in a harsh new light, and explains with interactions with a little boy named Malik who follows her with a quizzical gaze. Adama jokes that Malik is a “scribe angel,” trying to tap into Banel’s private thoughts. Banel is offended, claiming that she has no secrets, but that turns out to be shockingly untrue.

The film builds to that revelation by stripping down the story, taking everything away from Banel until all she has is Adama, and he’s becoming increasingly absent. The title comes into play here, completely inverting the child-like innocence of the early scenes, with the swooning Banel scribbling “Banel e Adama” in a notebook, like the elements of a dream that she can’t believe has come true. By the end, the phrase has become something more sinister: an incantation, or even a curse, like Jack Torrance in The Shining writing the same phrase over and over on his typewriter.

There’s a lot to absorb in this beautifully realized production, and on a visceral level alone it’s quite sumptuous, from the gorgeous bright clothes of the Senegalese to a sandstorm that seems to pop out of the screen in 3D. But it’s as a performance piece that it really gets under your skin, watching Banel’s desperate realization that, while she rejects the straitjacket of her community’s tribal past, she has nothing of her own to replace it with, just a fantasy that, like her dream home, is built on shifting sand.

Title: Banel & Adama
Section: Cannes (Competition)
Director/screenwriter: Ramata-Toulaye Sy
Cast: Khady Mane, Mamadou Diallo
Running time: 1hr 27min

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