One of the rarest sightings at the Cannes Film Festival is the first-time filmmaker whose debut feature has been admitted to the exclusive Main Competition lineup. That section is normally the domain of veteran directors who’ve been to Cannes before (the names Scorsese, Loach, Kore-eda, Wenders, Kaurismaki and Rohrwacher might ring a bell this year), but a Senegalese-French director named Ramata-Toulaye Sy has joined the 2023 ranks with “Banel & Adama,” her first feature after one short and a couple of writing credits.
Hers is the first debut film to land in the Main Competition since Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” and Ladj Ly’s “Les Miserables” did so four years ago; the former film made the Oscar shortlist in the Best International Feature Film category and the latter was nominated for that award. In the past decade, the only other first films to crash the competition were Abu Bakr Shawky’s “Yomeddine” in 2018 and Laszlo Nemes’ Oscar-winning “Son of Saul” in 2015.
So Sy is in rarefied company, and even more rarefied as a female director from Africa in the Cannes competition. (Diop was the first ever in 2019; Sy is the second.) She’s achieved that distinction with a film that feels assured, not tentative. In fact, when it opens with two characters walking through tall grass with their arms outstretched, accompanied by gentle whispers and stately piano music on the soundtrack, it feels like nothing so much as a West African spin on the free-form reveries of Terrence Malick.
The lyricism of “Banel & Adama” continues to make nods to Malick, but it’s also visually distinctive and drenched in color: a bright yellow shirt, rich orange fabrics, the vivid blue of a river even as it falls into shadow. That river scene is the setting when Banel, a young woman in a small Senegalese village, asks her husband, Adama, to tell her a story, and he unspools the yarn of an ancestor who could talk to the sirens who lived under the surface of the water.
“It is a true story?” she asks when he finishes.
“What do you mean?” responds Adama, a storyteller who knows there’s more to the power of a story than literal truth.
In Sy’s story, Banel and Adama come together through tragedy: She was the second wife of his older brother, but when her husband fell into a well and died, Adama did what custom demanded and married his brother’s young widow. But however accidental the pairing, their bond appears unshakable. She has no interest in spending time with anybody else in the village, he turns down the role of village chief even though by birthright it’s his, and together they spend their time excavating a pair of houses outside town that have been buried in dirt. Banel is convinced it will be perfect homes for them away from everyone else.
In a community bound by tradition and in the grip of a fearsome drought, this plan is ridiculed by anyone around them. But Banel ignores them all – and for a long time, the movie itself is less interested in plot machinations than in sinking into a rich fantasia. There are those whispers, those piano notes, those splashes of color and the ever-present nature: water, trees and, increasingly, parched earth.
At an hour and 27 minutes, the film has the feel of an exquisite miniature, succinct and evocative. But even as Sy maintains a languid pace, the lyricism is eventually drained out of “Banel & Adama,” the color replaced by shades of grey, brown and fierce white light as the lack of rain kills cattle, then people.
In the face of this, Adama bows to tradition and tries to occupy the role he’s supposed to fill; Banel, though, becomes even more single-minded as she reduces their entire world to a sheet of paper on which she’s scrawled the script for their lives: “Banel e Adama, Banel e Adama, Banel e Adama … ”
There aren’t a lot of shades to her obsession, but first-time actors Khady Mane as Banel and Mamadou Diallo as Adama create a relationship that feels fleshed-out. Sy, so adept at creating the small grace notes that animate the film, is perhaps a little less sure-handed as the drought worsens and things get downright apocalyptic, but she finds a way to mix reverie and calamity.
“We were kings, masters of the world,” says another hushed voiceover toward the end. “Today, who are we? Flesh. Blood. Evil. Always the same evil. And before my eyes, the world falls apart.”
That’s what the voice says, but that’s not what “Banel & Adama” says or what Ramata-Toulaye Sy says. In her impressive debut, she’s saying we’re more than flesh and blood – and that if things are falling apart, we can still make sense of it because we’re storytellers.