‘Banel & Adama’ Review: A Parable of Two Young Lovers

A love story suffused in beauty and mystery, “Banel & Adama” draws you in right from the start. Set in an unnamed Senegal village during an unspecified time, it opens on two young lovers quietly blissing out on each other. The two are first seen in striking close-up — early on, the movie cuts from an image of her lush, pretty mouth to a shot of one of his steadily adoring eyes — like puzzle pieces that the movie bids you to fit together. Given the dreamy vibe as well as the bright, vivid palette, it is an invitation that you readily take up.

Banel and Adama — played by the appealing Khady Mane and Mamadou Diallo, both nonprofessionals — live in a small house in a small village that looks like it could exist today but also decades earlier. (The villagers use kerosene lamps, and I don’t recall anyone using a cellphone.) There, Adama tends a modest herd of cattle as Banel keeps him company, their smiles, laughs and movements pleasantly in sync. Like all besotted lovers, they seem to exist in a private realm, one that the French-Senegalese filmmaker Ramata-Toulaye Sy illuminates with cozy framing, daubs of strong colors and a bold, graphic sensibility.

The story emerges in morsels of naturalistic dialogue and brief, on-point scenes that incrementally sketch in the characters’ intimacy, shared history, familial relationships and distinct temperaments. Two years earlier, Adama, now 19, married Banel, his brother’s widow and second wife. Tradition, as his mother and others insist, decrees that he now assume the role of the village chief, a position he refuses. He’s content simply to be with Banel, and together they plan to move out of the village once they dig a nearby house out of a mountain of sand. Each day, they dig and they dig, a task that soon groans with portentous symbolism.

Sy has a terrific eye and, working with her cinematographer Amine Berrada, she quickly hooks you with the beauty of Banel and Adama’s world, pulling you into their everyday life with hints of drama and myth, though mostly with the graceful compositions and the region’s natural riches, its green fields and blue skies. The camera moves just so, never racing or crawling, which allows you to luxuriate in the details that fill in the picture and deepen the realism. Sy’s attention to physical surfaces — shimmering water, nubby cloth, smooth bark — is particularly adept and helps create a sense of texture so strong you can almost feel it in your hands.

Trouble comes slowly but inevitably to “Banel & Adama.” Love stories tend to have three outcomes: happy, tragic or blah, and blah doesn’t usually cut it in movies. Banel, you soon intuit, is somewhat of a nonconformist; among other things, she doesn’t want children, she wears her hair short, and amusingly, when her brother, who teaches the Quran to children, chides her for not sitting properly, she threatens to wear pants. (Unlike most of the other women, she rarely covers her head.) When Adama’s mother tells Banel that she has to stay in the village with the other women to do chores, she initially resists. Then she gives in — there’s a sense she doesn’t have much choice — and things start to go calamitously south.

Banel begins killing small animals with a slingshot for no obvious reason; mostly, she seems (understandably) unhappy being separated from Adama as well as with the traditional gender roles she’s forced into. Yet she, like so much of this movie, remains frustratingly opaque, a cluster of blurry ideas about gender, tradition and mythology that never jibe with the story’s harsh materialism. It gets worse, tragically so. The green fields wither and the cattle die, their corpses scattered across the parched ground like omens. The villagers despair and Adama looks defeated, wrung out, while Banel largely seems adrift and at a loss, even as she keeps up her killing spree. As Sy continues obliquely gesturing at meaning, you remain engaged but also find yourself wishing that all these many desperate pieces fit together more coherently.

Banal & Adama
Not rated. Animal lovers should note that a few animals seem to be killed onscreen, and a dead cow is butchered. In Pular and Rula, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. In theaters.

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