Banel & Adama review – Senegalese village love story with echoes of Romeo and Juliet

Impressive … Banel and Adama
Impressive … Banel and Adama. Photograph: The Bat – Take Shelter

Banel & Adama review – Senegalese village love story with echoes of Romeo and Juliet

Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s debut film pairs reluctant chief Adama and troublesome widow Banel as they battle local hostility to continue their relationship

Franco-Senegalese director Ramata-Toulaye Sy makes an accomplished feature debut in the Cannes competition – the only first-timer on the list – and while it is flawed, this film finds an assured place in the quietist tradition of African cinema with beautiful images and strong moments, and with relevant things to say about community, a woman’s place and the climate crisis.

Banel (Khady Mane) and Adama (Mamadou Diallo) are two young people in a Senegalese village who appear to be very much in love: dreamily, moonily, utterly infatuated with each other. Banel writes their linked names “Banel e Adama” over and over again in a notebook like a lovestruck schoolkid. They dream of living together in an abandoned house which is at present buried by a recent sandstorm.

But should we fear that this is a tale of star-crossed love? Will the village forbid their wedding? Not exactly. They are in fact a married couple, yet things are complicated. They have been in love since their early teens, but Banel was forced to marry Adama’s older brother Yero, who was the tribal chief. When Yero died, Adama’s subsequent offer to marry the now widowed Banel was welcomed by the tribal elders as an admirable act of piety and honour. So things have (supposedly) worked out fine, though both have the uneasy feeling that their happiness is founded on dishonesty and disloyalty to Yero’s memory.

But now the community is outraged by Adama’s refusal to accept the position of tribal chief – he wants only to live away from the village with Banel in this soon-to-be-dug-up house – and Banel infuriates her mother by not getting pregnant and having no interest in motherhood. Their dual obstinacy assumes a more dramatic aspect as a drought strikes the village, and weeks and months go by without rain, a calamity which the community unhesitatingly blames on Banel, as the troublesome woman.

Sy and Mane show that Banel is not a simperingly demure Juliet figure: she is fierce and pugnacious with a violent streak. She likes killing things with stones flung from a catapult, and when she uses this weapon to kill a songbird there was a gasp of disbelief from the audience I was in. Wonderfully photographed and vehemently acted, the film is full of ideas that might perhaps go in a short film; it does not really deliver a narrative final act, unless it is to suggest a weary yet defiant submission to misogynist forces that are blaming Banel for things that are not her fault. Nonetheless, this is an impressive piece of work from a natural film-maker.

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