Banel & Adama review | Mysterious, thoughtful debut from Ramata-Toulaye Sy

banel adama review
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The titular lovers of writer-director Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s debut feature have to weigh their love against their community’s needs. Here’s our Banel & Adama review. 

Writer-director Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s Banel & Adama, was the only debut feature to compete for the coveted Palme D’Or at Cannes last May. That honour eventually went to Anatomy Of A Fall, but as far as first films go, there’s much to applaud in Sy’s romantic drama.

The film gets its name from the two lovers at the heart of the story. Banel (Khady Mane) scribbles their names in a notebook like a lovesick teenager, repeating them over and over again like a mantra which gives her power. She’s helplessly in love with Adama (Mamadou Diallo), who’s destined to take over as the chief of their little village after the death of his father and brother.

Banel & Adama is about love, but if you’re looking for a film in the vein of The Notebook, you’re probably better off watching… well, The Notebook. The love Sy portrays here is the all-consuming kind, one that nearly drowns you, suffocates you. As the film progresses, Banel becomes more and more frustrated, bordering on unhinged. 

She is set on leaving the village with Adama, starting anew in an abandoned house outside their community. The house is currently buried in sand, but nothing can deter Banel from digging it out and escaping her life in the village. You see, Banel doesn’t fit in. She rebels at every chance she gets, refuses to wear a head scarf and has no interest in having babies. 

banel & adama
Credit: We Are Parable.

Sy’s most impressive feat here is not choosing a side. A less ambitious filmmaker would have framed this as Adama’s story; he is constantly pulled by his love for Banel and his deep-running sense of duty for his family and community. A lesser filmmaker would have also rendered Banel into a hysterical woman who stands in the way of her husband’s destiny. 

But Banel isn’t that woman. Instead, she’s deeply unlikeable. She can be cruel, too, as we see when she shoots a songbird with a slingshot without missing a beat. It’s an impressive, engrossing performance from Khady Mane, who isn’t afraid to lean on Banel’s uglier qualities. In a particularly affecting scene, Banel drags Adama to the house and demands him to dig, as if all their problems would be solved if they could just get the house out from its sandy prison. 

It’s a shame the film runs out of steam by the halfway mark. Banel & Adama is visually gorgeous, but the images Sy and her cinematographer Amine Berrada conjure feel disjointed and lacking in deeper meaning. The film constantly fluctuates between not having enough meat on its bones and having too many conflicting emotions and story beats happening at once. 

Despite its flaws, Banel & Adama is an impressive, ambitious debut from Sy, who directs the film with rare clarity and peacefulness. The film ends on a mysterious note, but I needed more answers. Banel & Adama is often dreamy, almost supernatural, but it can’t quite find the balance between the meditative quality it strives for and the realism it settles for.

Banel & Adama is in UK cinemas on the15th March. 

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