Banel (Khady Mane) in Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s debut “Banel & Adama,” which competed for the Palme d’Or in 2023, is a refreshingly singular heroine. In the Senegalese village, she comes from, she freely defies the shackle-hold of patriarchal norms. Banel is determined and driven to get what she aims for. Her ferocity gradually assumes more frightening undertones.

As rebellious and unorthodox as her individual dreams are, she doesn’t view them as extraordinary ambitions like how the rest of her community does. She disengages herself from the folds of expectations imposed on femininity and feminine code, resisting with all her might. Banel doesn’t subscribe to the notion that she’s challenging and disturbing the order of things. She is surrounded by persistent reiteration of it, how she’s breaching rules, but nevertheless refuses it to hijack the purview of her hopes and desires.

It’s critical to note, and especially remarkable, that Sy never allows the constant battering challenges to break the mold and spirit of Banel. There’s not an apologetic bone in her body, even though it gets occasionally perturbing to witness and gauge the degree to which she can whittle out her want from the flinty surfaces of conventional behavior. It is she who keeps pushing her husband, Adama (Mamadou Diallo), to eke out a new life away from the gaze of the village and community.

Together, they set out on digging through the sand in which abandoned houses at the edge of the village got buried, with an endeavor to move into them and envisage a life led on their own terms. But there are too many hurdles to leap over before the couple can turn their dreams into reality. Everyone with whom the couple shares their wish to relocate to those dwellings instantly warns them against pursuing it any further and immediately scraps the plan. Not only do they dismiss it, but they caution them against meddling with the site they call cursed.

Banel & Adama (2024) Movie Review
A still from “Banel & Adama” (2024)

Are they prepared to reckon with the repercussions of tinkering with the order of things? The community circles the couple, insistent that it is their transgression that has brought upon the village a spate of bad luck. Everything from the merciless drought that wipes out most of the villagers’ cattle to the depredation that takes sway over them becomes attributed to the couple’s recklessly individualistic deeds. Then there’s the pressing question of the vacant village chief position that is supposed to be filled in by Adama by dint of lineage. He tries to bypass it as long as he can.

A steely Banel exhorts him to dig his heels in and not succumb to the dictates of custom by which he is compelled to take up the position. If he does that, their dream of a life outside the village-determined boundaries will crash. Steeped in superstition and beliefs, the community underlines that the desperate misery of the circumstances that befall them is a sort of cosmic retribution against the couple straying from the course of tradition. The tremendous weight falls on Adama to cave in, but Banel stays bullish and headstrong even as she feels everything close in on her.

“Banel & Adama” is visually ravishing, with Amine Berrada’s sumptuous camerawork detailing the rugged beauty of the location as well as ramping up an inquiry into the fragmenting consciousness of Banel. As the villagers emphasize the influence of elements beyond the natural in rupturing their lifestyle, the film severs the link between the everyday and the elevated. Khady Mane plays the unflinching, unflappable heroine with grit and mystery. She allows us to see in full scope her dangerously single-minded agenda that will halt at nothing. Yet, Sy’s screenplay doesn’t spell it all out, intuiting Mane’s performance to furnish those missing blanks.

“Banel & Adama” is pulled along by Mane’s incendiary performance and its fugue-like atmosphere. Occasionally, one feels the characterization becomes stunted and secondary to a strong, disconcerting visual spell. Nevertheless, Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s fully formed voice as a director and her affinity for conjuring bracing, hypnotically unsettling images tide over minor lapses, building to a haunting, ambitious finale. “Banel & Adama” is an extraordinarily confident, visually polished debut with a startling heroine who rebuffs every rule foisted on her.

Read More: The 30 Greatest Cannes Palme d’Or Winners of All Time

Banel & Adama (2024) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
Banel & Adama (2024) Movie Cast: Khady Mane, Mamadou Diallo, Binta Racine Sy, Moussa Sow, Ndiabel Diallo, Oumar Samba Dia, Amadou Ndiaye
Banel & Adama (2024) Movie Genre: Drama | Runtime: 1h 27m

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