When Emmanuelle (Clarisse Albrecht) first arrives in the Dominican Republic, her world immediately finds a welcome peace and a splash of color. She has left her drab and gray home life in France behind, if ever so briefly. But once she’s arrested for drug trafficking — just as she’s set to fly back, no less — Emma finds her entire world closing in on her, leaving her adrift in an alienating place. At first glance, Ivan Herrera’s film appears to immerse us in a Caribbean story that feels all too familiar. Except “Bantú Mama” is not set on perpetuating any stereotype-riddled stories about drug mules or crime in so-called “Third World” countries.
In fact, as soon as the film moves out of its thriller-esque first act (with tense police interrogation scenes, a serendipitous car accident and a runaway chase), it settles quite nicely into a more relaxed sensibility. That happens as soon as Emma is taken in by a trio of kids who live by themselves, since Mom’s dead and Dad’s in jail. Of the three, only the youngest, Cuki (Euris Javiel), still has an air of childish whimsy about him. His sister T.I.N.A. (Scarlet Reyes) and brother $hulo (Arturo Perez) have a hardened air about them. They’ve each understood that to live in and from the streets requires a degree of know-how that demands they let go of whatever childhood they may once have dreamed of.
As Cuki grows ever more attached to Emma, who herself struggles with never leaving the makeshift household that serves as her sanctuary, yearning as she does to go back to her home, the two form a family unit that prioritizes joy and hope over the despair that remains inescapable just outside their doors. She also becomes a way for the three kids to learn more about the African diaspora, ever curious as they are about her Bantú lineage and even of the Maasai jumps Cuki once saw on television and which Emma gleefully demonstrates for them. Such moments of grace are contrasted with the world $hulo and T.I.N.A. have to navigate to keep their lives afloat (and their dad’s dealings in place).
Herrera’s passion for still photography is palpable in every frame of the film, especially as Emma begins to see the environment around her with new eyes. Alongside cinematographer Sebastián Cabrera Chelin, Herrera has created a vision of the Dominican Republic’s most dangerous neighborhoods that is as lyrical as it is authentic. Instead of glamorizing, the helmer fixes her attention on the visual and aural poetry that can be found in these spaces: lingering scenes of young men on bikes, of a boy swimming underwater or even of a girl admiring her head wrap in the mirror are tinged with loving affection. There’s no ethnography here nor an intrusive attempt to frame these images for those who’d only encounter them on the big screen.
It’s no surprise to find Herrera citing Barry Jenkins as an inspiration, as the affectionate melancholy that runs through “Bantú Mama” will feel familiar to anyone who’s admired the sun-dappled and blue-hued worlds the “Moonlight” director has captured on film. There’s a shot while Cuki is at a barbershop getting a haircut that’s so unusual and so obviously designed to stress the young boy’s fractured relationship with the masculinity such a space conjures up that it immediately made me wish I could have paused the projection to better relish in its beauty.
But perhaps what’s most transcendent about this gem of a collaborative project (Herrera co-wrote the film with Albrecht) is its epilogue. There is no need to spoil what happens at the end of Emma’s time in the D.R., but it’s worth pointing out the way Herrera and Albrecht push audiences not out of the center and into the margin, but force them to rethink such reductive rhetoric. By the film’s end, “Bantú Mama” reimagines what a possible future anchored in an “elsewhere” that’s all too often flattened into a forgotten historical (and colonial) past.
At once an intimate portrait of a makeshift family and a treatise on motherhood and motherlands, “Bantú Mama” is a quiet achievement. Albrecht and Herrera’s care in crafting Emma’s transnational and bilingual story is made all the more impressive by how sparingly simple it appears on first watch. Yet the complexity of the themes they’ve woven in, and the conversations around cross-cultural lineages they’re clearly engaged in, make their collaboration an admirable entry in the Caribbean country’s budding cinematic canon.
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