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Banel & Adama Is Lyrical, Lush, and Fierce

Photo: courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Banel & Adama, the directorial debut of Ramata-Toulaye Sy, has already made a buzz. At Cannes in 2023, where it made its World Premiere, it was the sole debut feature to premiere in Competition, and was Senegal’s official entry to the 96th Academy Awards. This month, it opens in New York and Los Angeles with broader distribution to follow, bringing Sy’s tragic tale of star-crossed Senegalese lovers to North America. Banel & Adama‘s story is tragic and beautiful, lyrical and lush, fierce and at times funny, and most of all, absolutely indelible.

Theirs—Banel (Khady Mane) and Adama’s (Mamadou Diallo)—is a love story. Just married, they live in a remote village in northern Senegal where to them, scarcely nothing exists save for each other: their thoughts are consumed by their mutual passion, their time together idyllic. Banel is recently widowed, the husband in her arranged marriage having recently passed away, and feverishly in love with Adama; he is bound by blood to assume the role of chief of their tribe, a long-held and strictly observed tradition. And one, not incidentally, that will require an heir.

Banel and Adama walk together through their village.
Photo: courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Yet Adama does not want the title. He is still young—too young, at 19, think some villagers—to assume a position of leadership. The duty and responsibility do not interest him; he would rather while his days away in romantic reverie with his new bride Banel and together, make their own plans for the future, ones that do not include the obligations of leading a tribe, or for that matter, raising an heir. Sy makes clear that these are both powerful forces: the couple’s intense love for each other is matched only by the tribe’s tight-knit community and sense of tradition. One is an irresistible force, the other an immovable object.

Adama’s rejection of leadership is, to put it mildly, catastrophic. To the tribe it is tantamount to a betrayal of the gods. Rains do not fall, and their region is plagued by drought. Cattle suffer and die, their milk and meat poisoned. Thinking their once-lush land now cursed, tribesmen leave for other pastures, leaving Banel and Adama and a handful of others behind. While Adama is wracked by self-doubt and recrimination for the curse that seems to plague his land and people, Banel’s passion for her man slowly twists into a more feverish, chaotic fugue that puts her desire above all else—and even against the survival of her people.

As the couple’s seemingly perfect quest for everlasting love is caught in the turbulence of their homeland’s new state of chaos, it becomes more and more clear that their romance is not only tragic but belonging to the realm of myth. Banel’s character in particular is deeply complex: she is marked visually as distinct from the other women around her by her canary-yellow shirt, cut like a man’s, and short hair with no headscarf. She loves with passion, but her fervor excludes her from her tribe. A pattern of small idiosyncrasies—boasting of her infidelity to ex- (deceased) husband, her uncanny aim with a slingshot, her refusal of domestic duty and motherhood—suggest an independence that will but heads against the tribe’s generations of patriarchy. She may be a modern feminist rebel against traditions of conformity, or she may be an agent of total chaos, there to wreak havoc with the natural order.

A lone figure sits against a withered tree.
Photo: courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Sy’s invocation of catastrophic drought indirectly evokes 21st-century climate change with a visual design of stark, even terrifying beauty, even as the narrative progresses to reveal the cataclysmic consequences of houses drowned in sand, lizards burning under the hot sun, and trees withering after a hundred years of life. Its is a visual design that from start to its incendiary, blistering finish supersedes one painterly, if increasingly apocalyptic, image with the next.

The cast is comprised entirely of non-professional actors. As the feverish, passionate Banel and given the most screen time, Khady Mane channels an impressive resolve and ferocity. The younger and more resolute Mamadou Diallo, as Adama, has less to do but is no less convincing as a would-be chief who looks upon his fateful decision with a mix of pride and regret. Together, their characters’ love, as adeptly scripted and directed by Sy, is ill-fated, tragic, even, but etched indelibly in richly cinematic imagery evoking a myth that is both timeless and all too timely.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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