Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This film is the official submission to the 92nd Academy Awards from Senegal for Best International Feature. It was announced that it made the Oscars’ shortlist. This year, the shortlist for Best International Feature includes 10 titles. Five of those titles will get the Oscar nomination. The film premiered at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. It was notable because it’s the first film directed by a black woman to be in competition at that festival. It’s about a black woman living in Dakar, the largest and capital city of Senegal, which lies on the west coast of Africa, along the Atlantic Ocean.
One of the outstanding things about this film is the frequent and almost incessant shots of that body of water. Director and co-writer Mati Diop cuts to many shots of the Atlantic Ocean. The inciting incident pretty much takes place out at sea. We never see the specific incident because Diop wants to maintain some mystery around it, but this film is tangentially about the beauty of that ocean, the proximity of it, the power of it and the danger of it as well. In a strange way, it reminded me of the Scottish film For Those In Peril (2014), which had a similar inciting incident involving a group of men who are lost at sea when their boat is caught in a storm. That brilliant film was about the trauma and mental deconstruction of a person in the wake of such a tragedy. It’s also about the social and societal ramifications. This film props itself as being instead about the awakening or liberation of a young woman in that kind of situation.
Mama Bineta Sane in her feature debut stars as Ada, a young woman living in Dakar. Like everyone else, she comes from a Muslim family, a family whose only concern for the women is who they will marry. For Ada’s family, particularly her parents and grandparents, it doesn’t matter if she’s in love. The only thing that seems to matter is that she’s marrying into a wealthy group. She’s set to marry a man who does come from a wealthy family. However, Ada is really in love with a young man who instead comes from poverty. When that young man disappears, Ada has to marry the wealthy man. Things change when someone suggests that the impoverished man is back and she has to decide if she’s going to risk her financial security and possible freedom in order to find and hopefully be with the one she truly loves.
Unfortunately, this film doesn’t do a lot to establish the relationship between Ada and her boyfriend. Both are young and good-looking, but we don’t get how they met or how long they’ve known each other. We have no clue what their interests are. We just have to accept that they have strong feelings for each other without any thing to support those feelings. Another film that came to mind in this regard is a film called Undertow (Contracorriente), the official submission from Peru to the 83rd Academy Awards. It was about a man who is married to a woman but is in love with a man. However, his secret lover dies at sea. The secret lover then comes back as a ghost. A similar thing happens here in Diop’s film. Yet, Undertow does a good job of developing the character of the dead lover and letting us know who he was and why the secret love affair was happening. Diop’s film doesn’t do that.
Ibrahima Traore plays Souleiman, the aforementioned boyfriend who Ada truly loves. We’re not sure how old he is, but he looks like a teenager and probably no older than 21. The only thing we learn about him, other than his love for Ada, is that he’s poor. He works as a construction worker, currently assigned to some tall building. Unfortunately, he and the other construction workers haven’t been paid in three months. Souleiman doesn’t have a car. He has to get to work on the back of a truck with the other workers. We don’t even get to see where he lives or what his family situation is. One night, he just disappears. He reportedly left on a boat to Spain to find an actual paying job, but it’s also reported that a storm capsized the boat and killed all the men on it, including Souleiman.
Strangely, on the night of her wedding, Ada is told that Souleiman was either in or near her house. She’s told this after the bedroom where she is to consummate her marriage is set on fire and almost destroys the place. She then starts to get text messages on her phone from someone claiming to be Souleiman. Other strange things start to occur, so Ada has to figure out if Souleiman is actually dead or if he’s alive, as well as what’s going on and who’s behind all of this.
Amadou Mbow co-stars as Issa, a police detective or inspector who is assigned to find the arsonist or the reason that the bedroom caught fire. As this is happening, Issa is having health issues. He gets very sweaty and is stumbling when he walks. He even passes out and wakes up without remembering what happened. It’s not until late in the film that he discovers that he’s being possessed by the spirit of Souleiman.
This aspect of the film is an interesting twist. It’s taking the idea of Undertow and mixing them with some ideas from Ghost (1990). Except, we never get any insight into the spirit, what it hopes to do or accomplish with the fire or even with possessing Issa or inhabiting Issa’s body. The film doesn’t even explore the dynamics or ethics of the spirit possessing Issa against his will, which wasn’t the case with Patrick Swayze’s character in Ghost. Without it, the film comes across more like a thriller or horror flick than a character study about this young woman, who she is and what she wants with regard to this boy. When Issa is possessed or when anyone is possessed, they have these blank, white eyes that look creepy and invoke a horror flick feeling.
Babacar Sylla plays Omar, the wealthy man that Ada marries when she thinks that Souleiman is dead. Before marrying him, she’s seen hanging out with him at a fancy hotel. She doesn’t seem that into him but eventually she goes along with the marriage to him. Given that situation, it’s a wonder why the spirit doesn’t possess Omar. I get that the film seems to be a rebellion of the arranged marriage that being with Omar represents, but it would have been better economy of storytelling to have Omar be the one who is possessed.
I’m not sure why having Issa, the inspector, in the narrative is necessary or what it does. If anything, his presence only adds more questions. At one point, Issa handcuffs himself to a wall in order to prevent his body from being used by the spirit. Yet, somehow he gets out of it, which is never explained. He then goes and has sex with Ada, which technically would be rape. If Issa isn’t consenting, yet his body is being forced to have sex, that’s rape. Yet, the film never deals with that reality. What if the spirit had possessed the body of a woman, what would Ada have done? Would she have had a lesbian affair? Given the homophobia in a lot of African countries, what would that have said? We don’t know and that’s a failing of this film.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.
Available on Netflix.