Banel & Adama: Cannes Film Festival 2023 Review

Year: 2023

Runtime: 87 minutes

Writer/Director: Ramata-Toulaye Sy

Actors: Khady Mane, Mamadou Diallo, Binta Racine Sy, Moussa Sow

By Sarah Manvel

First-time director Ramata-Toulaye Sy has struck gold with her first feature, “Banel & Adama,” and has also made history as the first French woman (and only the second black woman; she is also Senegalese) to have her debut film be selected for the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival. The festival circuit is exactly the place for a movie set in remote Senegal, with dialogue entirely in Pulaar (a language spoken by less than five million people) and acted by local non-professionals to attract its deserved level of attention. And the attention is very well deserved in this case, because it’s unusual to see a movie marry its local problems to such unbelievably gorgeous visuals that the universal themes cannot be ignored.

Adama (Mamadou Diallo) is the son of the late local chief, whose older brother Yero was destined to be the heir until his accidental death a year previously. (The lack of obvious technology such as mobile phones keeps the precise timings of when this is set deliberately vague.) The heir’s second wife, Banel (Khady Mane), was left a very young widow, so out of duty Adama had to marry her. But theirs is a true love match, albeit one only possible because of Yero’s death, and the rest of their little village hardly matters to them. They are living unhappily with Adama’s mother (Binta Racine Sy), who simply doesn’t understand why Adama refuses to become the new chief, as is his birthright. But Adama only wants to make Banel happy, and Banel only wants to be with Adama. They have plans to take over a house outside town that was buried in a sandstorm – and that means completely buried, over the roof – and they often spend their evenings digging and plotting their future happiness alone together. Otherwise Adama herds the cows, but Banel is often made to stay back to do women’s work, which bores her, and coming under pressure to have a baby, the absolute last thing she wants. She’s also very good with her slingshot, and killing birds and lizards is a great way to vent her annoyance.

However the rains don’t come and the cows are beginning to die, and the village elders can see only one reason for this: Adama’s refusal to become the new chief which is, of course, Banel’s fault. Under this pressure, and in watching the animals he so cares for die under the baking sun, Adama starts to wonder. It would certainly please his mother and the entire rest of the village if he did what they wanted. Banel doesn’t care, and that conflict is what drives this unusually beautiful film. Cinematographer Amine Berrada does exceptional work with sunlight and shadow – just look at the scene where Banel leans against the tree, and the curve of the shadows mirror the curves on her face. Or the image from the poster – a shot of Banel walking around a tree at sunset as she chants her husband’s name like the starry-eyed teenager she still is. Or the crane shots, which observe dead cattle or miserable women in silence, as we consider what it must be like to live under such constraints. 

Moussa Sow as Racine, the local teacher and Banel’s twin brother, offers hints of what the world might have in store, but the repeated shots of young students chanting the Koran (which Banel also has memorised) are a little much. There is also a little too much consideration; the stately pace is in big contrast to the passion of Adama and Banel’s feelings and to the pressure they are under. A little more melodrama before the big plot twist might have been appropriate. Ms Mane’s sulky petulance is unusual to see in an adult, and her willingness to harm others is somewhat shocking – when she kills the bird, there was an audible gasp of shock – but she’s not doing anything men don’t do. On the other hand, small villages keep their identity through ruthless conformity, and in that regard neither Adama nor Banel are special. The question is whether Banel will figure out how to be both true to herself and to her love. It’s an imperfect film, but an especially beautiful one, and deserves its moment on the world’s biggest film stage. 


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