There is a sensual elusiveness to Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s debut film that makes its subject matter or even its genre difficult to articulate. Is it a riff of “Romeo & Juliet”, filtered through Senegalese village life? Or is it a sci-fi fable, with mirage-like warmth reflecting a slow descent into personal madness a la Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”? “Banel & Adama” is a startling debut that puts Sy on the map as a purveyor of deceptively beautiful visions displaying fragile desires at the mercy of social and literal time. A drought can dry up the fiercest emotional bonds, so what’s the use of romantic love when people are starving for heat?
We hear their names first, as intimate whispers repeat, “Banel and Adama,” and DP Amine Berrada films dancing sunbeams refracting into mysterious shapes. We then see a piece of paper with their names written together, over and over, ad infinitum, before we’re told in voiceover of a young girl who drowned in a river, apparently drawn by mermaids. We then see Banel (Khady Mane) and Adama (Mamadou Diallo) relaxing in the sparkling water. There are no mermaids, only teenagers in love, even if a tone has been set in which collective superstition and individual freedoms coexist without one prevailing over the other, apart from the fact that we are in Banel’s head.
After Banel’s first husband died by falling into an open pit, Muslim tradition decreed that his younger brother, Adama, marry the widow—a stroke of luck because it is a true love match. The pair never wish to be apart, and Berrada’s vivid impressionistic images convey a heightened universe of two people living sacredly. “I loved like a woman,” Banel reveals as the sunlight sparkles and dances. The combination of the ethereal voiceover with nature in its most breathtaking form evokes the philosophical high priest of our cinema, Terrence Malick.
Banel dreams of living with Adama in a house in the dunes. These dune houses are submerged in sand, and the progress in excavating them is Banel’s measure of how close they are to happiness. However, traditions in this small Islamic village threaten to stall their project. Adama is the next village chief. When he turns down the role and doesn’t show up to prayers, his failure, and by extension his romance with Banel, he’s held responsible when a drought persists, causing the deaths of livestock and, eventually, people.
Sy softens the motivations of would-be antagonists by filming everyone with an eye to their beauty and belonging to this milieu. As her mother (Binta Racine Sy) lectures Banel on the importance of Adama coming forward and Banel behaving in a more classically feminine way, her cyan dress stands out against a burnt sienna wall . Each shot is held just long enough to feel the entrancing pull of a compelling image, but not so long as to delay the story engine. A languid pace is set so that it is a pleasure to be in this world, even if Sy’s intentional confidence begs the question of what this beauty hides.
The ways in which Banel and Adama disagree with the villagers are slowly transformed into daily vignettes under a sun that makes it hard to tell tears from sweat. First their schedules are ripped apart, so that she is sent off to do laundry while he herds the animals. Sy shoots Banel alone, sitting staring out to sea with her head framed in a laurel of tree branches, or motionless inside a tent wrapped in a mosquito net. Conversely, the villagers work in rhythm with one another, so that in one scene they use agricultural tools in perfect sync, in another they are a tableaux.
Adama appears less frequently as the sense of impending doom awaiting the village becomes more pronounced. Dead animals litter the film, some of which are about Banel who has a homicidal little habit of shooting his slingshot at birds and lizards, only to later incinerate their bodies in a fire. As Adama moves out of view, Banel’s portrait becomes more unstable. He hallucinates and yells at a little boy, Malik, who has a habit of writing everything down. It is suggested that he is an “angel scribe”, someone who can read the thoughts of others.
The biggest takeaway here is that there is no primacy between one version of events or another. Banel is not so much an unreliable narrator as the protagonist of a feverish dream in which symbolism and reality merge. That being the case, perhaps the villagers are right about her, perhaps her relationship with Adama has kept the rains from falling, perhaps love is a selfish force that pushes her away from collective needs. Sy does not provide a definitive interpretation, bringing images of her to a level of dull repression, letting dramatic emotions and weather conditions set a temperature of their own mysterious creation.
“Banel & Adama” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.