Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Movie Review (FCEPR 2023): ‘Banel & Adama’ is a Beautiful and Artistic Debut by Ramata-Toulaye Sy

Director: Ramata-Toulaye Sy
Writers Ramata-Toulaye Sy
Stars: Khady Mane, Mamadou Diallo, Binta Racine Sy

Synopsis: A young couple in Senegal must contend with the disapproval of their remote village.

After a series of award-winning short films, French filmmaker Ramata-Toulaye Sy has delivered her feature-length debut in Banel and Adama – a love story showered in magical realism and lyricism. While its tale of star-crossed lovers is not executed to its fullest potential, the images concocted and shot by cinematographer Amine Berrada are utterly haunting and transcendent, which makes you forgive the narrative issues. This year’s FCEPR lineup does have its array of distinct pictures in its modern cinema slate. But in terms of artistry, this one stands out the most. 

As its title says, this film centers around two young people, Banel (Khady Mane) and Adama (Mamadou Diallo),  in a Senegalese village at an unspecified time. You can see it as a Romeo and Juliet-like love story, where instead of seeing the Renaissance traits of the aforementioned tale, we see Ramata-Toulaye Sy adding elements of magical realism and religious traditions, seen through the lavish cinematography by Amine Berrada and the sand-covered African plains. These two lovers are very infatuated with one another; Banel often writes their names on a notebook in a lovelorn manner. They can’t be apart, particularly Banel, who refuses to work in the field and only wants to help Adama herd the cows. She has been asked to step back, and the women in the village push her to have a baby, which Banel doesn’t want to do. You might think that these rebellious attitudes are to act against the village or its traditions, but that isn’t the case. 

They genuinely care a lot about those traditions and follow every rule apart from those mentioned. But Banel and Adama have their dreams, separate from what the village elders say. Each day, before the sun goes down and the moon shines, they try to dig out some abandoned houses buried by a sandstorm. These houses are deemed cursed, left behind for a specific reason. But that isn’t stopping them from uncovering what lies beneath the sand, all to the disapproval of Adama’s mother (Binta Racine Sy). Things have been complicated for both Banel and Adama as tragedy shifted their way of life. Banel was forced to marry Adama’s older brother, Yero, the tribal chief of the village during the time. Yet, once he passed away during an unforetold accident, Adama offered to wed the widow. And the elders accepted the offer, seen by them as an act of tribute and purity. 

Loss brought them together, and, at the same time, it has grown a sense of disloyalty in both Banel and Adama, as they feel they have dishonored the late Yero. When spending time on her own, Banel reflects a lot upon past and forthcoming tragedy. Early on, you learn that she didn’t love Yero; Adama was the man Banel always loved – meant for each other to spend the rest of their days together. A particular belief comes through the viewer’s mind, where you start to wonder whether she was involved in that demise to get her way. Was she complicit in Yero’s murder? Or was there a mystical element involved amidst the cataclysm? Ramata-Toulaye Sy plays with this notion by adding elements of witchcraft into this tale of star-crossed lovers. This paves the way for the incidents later in the story. 

Adama’s mother occasionally cites that Banel puts ideas into his head, one that would separate him from the traditions of the village. Adama has refused to accept his new role as tribal chief because he only wants to be happy with Banel. Spending time with her is the only thing that makes him most content. At first, the village accepts his wishes, as he will not be forced to fill the role that was destined for him. But as a massive drought hits him, killing all of the crops and cows, they believe Adama’s refusal is the culprit. This creates a conflict between Adama, Banel, and the village. As he seeks answers and remedies, Banel continues to care less about what happens and only wants to live her life with the man she loves. The community continues to blame Banel for all these troubles that are not her fault. 

Mane and Diallo, both being first-time actors, have incredible chemistry with one another. They pull off the vivacity and desperateness needed for the role with ease. With quite difficult roles to sink their teeth into, the two actors play lovers as if they have known each other for years – their work is very impressive considering the multi-layered material being given to them. With only an eighty-seven minute runtime, Ramata-Toulaye Sy showers Banel & Adama with magical realism, adding beauty and color to the film’s enchanting factors and lyricism similar to Terrence Malick’s best works. Visually, it is very distinctive and artistic, especially for a directorial debut. The vivid yellow, orange, blues, and moonlit reds are all so captivating, making most of the shots feel like expressionistic paintings. One of the few issues with the film is that the story perse is occasionally flimsy, a constant issue that happens in most directorial debuts. 
Some parts of the narrative get lost amidst magical realism and lyricism. Although it adds to the aesthetic and magnetic beauty, Ramata-Toulaye Sy focuses a tad too much on the stylistic asset rather than polishing the story a bit more to increase its impact. Of course, the images, both haunting and transcendent, do move the viewer. But I don’t believe that they do so on a more prominent level due to the love story’s execution. At least, you sense the confidence in the French filmmaker’s direction and visual language. Deft camera movements followed by atmospheric exercises in mood make Banel & Adama quite an emotive and formal project.


Grade: B

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