‘Banel & Adama’ review: An imperfect yet visually stunning directorial debut from Ramata-Toulaye SY | Cannes
From northern Senegal and director Ramata-Toulaye SY comes one of the most visually stunning films out of the Cannes lineup this year: Banel & Adama. With captivating performances, breathtaking cinematography and intimate direction, it has many assets to make it a hidden gem. Though the film is quite a massive undertaking and sports some clashing themes and styles as it tries to find its footing, it’s still an impressive feat, especially for a directorial debut.
Banel & Adama follows two lovers and their struggles to balance their love for one another with familial and cultural expectations. Banel (Khady Mane) is a young woman, married to and deeply in love with Adama (Mamadou Diallo), who spends each day herding the cows under the blistering sun during the persistent and relentless drought. Banel actively rejects the idea she needs to be pregnant, to present herself as or sit like a lady at all times. She continuously defies the patriarchal standards of her environment with the support of her loving Adama, until things come to a head seemingly all at once. The couple wishes to move into some houses on the outskirts of town together, but Adama is next in line to be chief and his village expects him to fulfill his duties. From this point forward, Banel and Adama’s seemingly picture perfect relationship is pushed and tested.
The cinematography by Amine Berrada and artistic style of the film are perhaps the absolute standouts overall. It’s impossible not to be drawn in by the stunningly vibrant colors of the clothing, the intoxicatingly hopeless way the drought is portrayed and shot as well as how intimate and detailed the atmospheric environment is captured. Nearly every shot has the potential of being a beautifully framed still with the help of a rich color palette and an impressionistic style which creates quite a unique visual aesthetic. This does wonders at immersing an audience into the drought-wrought environment our characters live and exist in.
Other impressive aspects include a wonderful score by Bachar Mar-Khalife to compliment the lovely visuals as well as some satisfying sound design and notable performances by all involved. Mane absolutely commandeers the screen, completely becoming Banel and showcasing her feisty attitudes and deep complexities that make Banel who she is. Diallo as Adama gives more of a subdued performance, though still gracefully manages to harness his character’s complex emotions and conflicting ideas all the same, albeit more subtlety. The duo are opposites in many ways, though come together to create a believable relationship and past.
Where the film falters is in the execution and melding of its themes and ideas. On one hand it is a complex love story between two people with a complicated past who hit a roadblock. They face cultural duties, religious ideals and preconceived expectations that weigh them down and put an immense strain on their relationship. This isn’t to mention the severe drought that is killing their crops and livestock, causing members of their village to flee in search of somewhere more viable. With a runtime of not even 90 minutes, this would’ve been plenty of meat for the story, but it attempts to go a step or two further, injecting the story with a sort of hyper-realism, myth and magic. These ideas are all very interesting, but end up creating a lot of loose ended questions and a bit of a jumbled overarching theme.
Despite a bit of a fumble in the pacing and thematic cohesiveness departments, Banel & Adama is a technically striking creation that merits praise for many of its aspects. As a directorial debut it is quite an impressive beast of a film, despite its extremely short runtime and tackles a multitude of intriguing themes that deserve a bit of exploration and fleshing out. Director Ramata-Toulaye SY will surely be one to watch out for in the future, as well as her two stars, Mane and Diallo, who play her two titular characters and carry the film with grace and poise.
This review is from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival where Banel & Adama premiered in competition. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.