A directorial debut programmed into the main Cannes competition is typically viewed with suspicion, if not overlooked altogether. Very rare is that lightning-in-a-bottle moment like the arrival of Son of Saul some years back. Typically, the only conversation these debuts generate is the critical debate as to why they’ve been elevated to the top of the pile when there are far more striking debuts buried deeper within the festival. This often means that accomplished films are overlooked and underappreciated by those on the ground, who may be subconsciously comparing a striking feature to the work of more established names it’s competing against for the Palme d’Or, approaching each debut with a “show me” attitude it wouldn’t be treated with if selected for placement in, say, Un Certain Regard.

Banel & Adama, the feature debut of Senegalese filmmaker Ramata-Toulaye Sy, is an assured work that has been plagued with the same curse as countless other first films given a competition bow, arriving in U.S. theaters with little fanfare more than a year after its premiere. It’s a film which possesses the spark of promise for a bold, original voice still finding itself, rather than a fully formed arrival of a new, distinct auteur. Sy creates an intoxicating, woozy atmosphere that sucks you into this hermetically-sealed community, which remains beguiling even as she doesn’t explore many themes surrounding her dark relationship drama with enough depth.

This might sound surprising, considering the narrative comparisons her film (a star-crossed story about a young couple once kept apart that shifts into a darker, singular character study) has drawn to Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. The titular couple (Khady Mane and Mamadou Diallo) has been in love since their young teenage years but are besieged by Banel’s betrothal to Adama’s brother. Prior to the film’s beginning, said brother has died, allowing the relationship to finally blossom. Alas, their romance is met with various obstacles that aim to keep them in the remote Senegalese village they’re both desperate to escape, slowly pushing Banel over the edge.

Opening with an out-of-focus shot that makes the baking sun appear like a baby in utero, Ramata-Toulaye Sy (who writes and directs) establishes Banel & Adama as a dark parable about the pressures placed on women in remote conservative communities before a single line of dialogue has been spoken. The female protagonist is routinely pressured into motherhood by the other women in town, never keeping her antagonistic feelings towards that idea particularly close to her chest. Mane excels at ensuring a character unknowingly in the middle of a domestic psychodrama always remains grounded in her frustrations. Standout sequences, such as a show-stopping monologue about how community expectations have made all men in the village identical in all-but-name, highlight that this is a character as assured as she is outspoken, seldom raising her voice because she’s become so numb to the disappointments of life; rage rarely manifests itself in ways that aren’t disarmingly, plainly spoken. As the film progresses we get hints of a cold-blooded streak, bringing the fate of her former fiancé into question. It’s here that the character’s Lady Macbeth arc becomes unavoidable, though Mane’s performance remains as restrained as the material allows.

If its drama hints at a claustrophobic, repressive atmosphere, cinematographer Amine Berrada’s work contrasts this by capturing the striking beauty of its rural settings––the film was shot entirely on-location in Northern Senegal––in a way that may initially make you wonder why anybody would want to get away from a simple life there. The margins of the story offer hints beyond addressing the conformist lifestyle expected of every inhabitant, such as infrequent references to natural disasters caused by climate change. One could compare this filming a character’s hell as if it were an idyllic paradise to the swathe of films from the global north about a darkness that lies in the heart of suburbia, but even those films depict the contrasts. Here there seems to be so much awe at shooting in such far-flung places that the darkness rarely follows into the frame. Only a hallucinatory finale invokes this, but the deeper meaning of that remains up for debate.

In short, this is a debut that––beneath its majestic, carefully-composed visuals––is far scrappier than it may appear, anchored by a perfectly-pitched lead performance that offers more than just a rehashed Lady Macbeth tribute act. It’s far from perfect, but as an introduction to a brand-new voice it’s never less than compelling.

Banel & Adama opens on June 7.

Grade: B-

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