The interlinked names of the lovers have an unusual power in Ramata-Toulaye Sy’s haunting, halting “Banel & Adama.” They play over and over as a whispery lullaby on the soundtrack. They cover the sheets of paper on which Banel (Khady Mane) compulsively writes their names, like a schoolgirl practicing cursive on the name of her crush. There’s an innocence to it at the beginning, as though Banel, whose strange mind we mostly occupy, is simply delighting in the sound and shape of their togetherness. But that’s when “Banel & Adama” is a love story, and before it descends, a little too hesitantly but with a subtly seductive power nonetheless, into drought and madness and maybe, cosmic retribution. The sun-and-superstition-soaked tale of an African girl contending with fate and folk tradition has some precedent in Rungano Nyoni’s excellent “I Am Not a Witch.” But here, as the bright imagery begins to hint paradoxically at creeping darkness, we can no longer be sure that witchcraft is not exactly what is at work.
In a small village in northern Senegal, Banel and her husband Adama (Mamadou Diallo) are in love. Glorying in the impressionistic prettiness of DP Amine Berrada’s camerawork, with its signature images of sun flares and sand dunes and slender boats being punted in silhouette through glittering waters, they tend to Adama’s small herd of cows by day. At night they tell each other stories, the camera now lingering on the lovers’ hands and lips. When Adama’s formidable mother (Binta Racine Sy) orders that Banel stay back to help the other village women with more traditionally feminine tasks like laundry or prepping the fields for the coming rains, Banel scowls. She practices her slingshot aim and spits on dying flies, sulking until Adama’s return. In the evenings, the couple goes to a hill nearby to dig — beneath the sands are buried houses that Banel dreams of reclaiming and moving into with her beloved, away from the stifling traditions of the village. And also, perhaps, away from certain events in her life.
But the rains don’t come. Adama, who married Banel according to Muslim custom after the death of his elder brother, her first husband, is expected to take over as village chief but refuses the role, and now he wonders if his defaulting on village customs has somehow brought on the drought. But if there are supernatural forces at work, they more likely whirl around Banel, whom we understand was in love with Adama long before her marriage to his brother, and whose proud, peculiar nature suggests she might be capable of any ruthlessness in order to get what she wanted.
“Banel and Adama…” she hears the words murmured in her dreams. Now they no longer sound like a soothing litany but an increasingly desperate incantation, and as the cows start to die in the heat, their hides shrinking to dusty suede in the ceaseless sun, and as the locals start to abandon the desiccated village, Banel’s behavior becomes more erratic. She kills lizards and tosses them into a fire. She shoos away the little boy (Amadou Ndiaye) whose intent stare causes her such unease. She argues with Racine (Moussa Sow), her pious twin brother. And when she gets frustrated with Adama’s postponement of their plans, she drags him up to the half-uncovered houses and claws into the sands with her bare hands, hectoring him to do the same. Could her earlier contentment have been the result of a spell gone wrong? Or perhaps, a spell gone exactly right, but now its unforeseen price has come due?
Sy’s film is a curious little fable, not quite fully formed in its final stages, and occasionally so sedate and opaque, under Bachar Mar-Khalifé’s melodic, piano-forward score, that it feels like it is drowsing. But it’s a striking debut nonetheless, especially as it revolves, with graceful poetry around the inner experiences of such a curious, unknowable woman. Banel, beautifully played by Mane who, even when we don’t, seems to perfectly understand her character’s joys and miseries and her flashes of prideful feminine ego (“Look at him,” she murmurs in voiceover, “No, look at me. Aren’t I a woman?”) is the one who will, for all her protestations of devotion, inherit the film. Perhaps the love between Banel and Adama, like life, requires water. And in a time of drought, it can only shrivel, like the baked skin of some dead animal, revealing its evil skeleton beneath.