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‘Bantú Mama’ Review: The African Diaspora Mapped Onto a Quietly Gripping Drama

The Dominican Republic's Oscar entry is a lyrical drama about a French woman of African descent hiding out with a group of kids.

Bantu Mama

“Bantú Mama”

Netflix/Array

As the Academy seeks ways to bolster its Best International Feature category, the future of international cinema in the U.S. is looking bright. Though the Dominican Republic has only submitted 14 films to the Oscars since its debut, the country has sent entries every year since 2011. This year, the Caribbean country has chosen an impressive contender, though the auteur-crowded field will be a tough one to crack.

The second feature from Dominican filmmaker Ivan Herrera, “Bantú Mama” is a skillfully crafted and gorgeously shot drama about a French woman of African descent hiding out with a trio of scrappy kids in Santo Domingo. Artfully told and tenderly performed, “Bantú Mama” maps the history of the African diaspora in the Caribbean onto a tightly focused and compelling human story.

With a script co-written by Herrera and his engaging lead actress Clarisse Albrecht, the story is an elegant synthesis of geography and identity, a fertile collaboration based on shared experience and connection to a place and culture. Taking pieces of her own background, Albrecht plays Emma, or Emmanuel, a single French Cameroonian living in France. When we meet her, she is living alone with her friendly grey parrot, preparing for a trip abroad. After checking into a luxe resort, she gets her hair braided on the beach by a local woman, who speaks to her first in Spanish before switching to French.

“I would love to go to Africa one day,” the woman tells Emma. “Me too,” she replies. Shot from a pleasant bird’s eye view, surrounded by the synthetic aquamarine blue of the hotel pool, she is jolted out of her reverie by a phone call. The purpose of her visit eventually revealed, she quickly packs some unmarked packages into her before nervously heading to the airport. The scene fades hazily as she stumbles over the officers’ questions, a sniffer dog barking in the background. She receives a surprising out when the vehicle transporting her is suddenly hit head on, and she crawls into a nearby river.

Hearing her cries for help, she is found by two kind teenagers, Tina (Scarlet Reyes) and Shulo (Arturo Perez), who were passing on their moped. The cousins take Emma to their humble flat in a rough neighborhood, where their littlest flatmate Cuki (Euris Javiel) takes an immediate shining to her. Curious about the mysterious surrogate mother they’ve adopted, they offer to help her without asking many questions. Emma fulfills her role warmly, teaching Tina how to wrap her hair and Cuki how to dance like a Maasai warrior. With the simplicity of childlike curiosity, Cuki lays out the film’s central question: “How can you be Bantu and French at the same time?”

The slowly grow into something like a family, speaking sparingly but just enough to establish a rapport. The script is minimalist, while still getting the main plot points across. We never see Tina’s father and Shulo’s uncle, but he is established as an influential gang leader in the neighborhood. While Shulo spends his days rapping and running errands for his uncle, Tina has her eye on helping Emma. A tough negotiator, she promises to secure safe passage home if Emma considers taking Cuki with her. “If you help me, I’ll help you,” she repeats solemnly. “He deserves a real life.”

Albrecht carries the story elegantly, and the three young actors are each impressive in their own ways, humming with an energetic naturalism. They have a lot to say with their glances and physicality, a fact Herrera and director of photography Sebastian Cabrera Chelin use artfully. The film wears its intimate handheld style confidently, and its bathed in a saturated dusty light that filters gorgeously through the tiny flat. A few well-timed shots of birds and kites dancing in the wind signals a plain message — the allure of freedom is visible, but always out of reach.

A very solid film from an emerging filmmaker, “Bantú Mama” may not carry the emotional or political heft necessary to secure it a coveted Oscar nomination. But with a push from Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing landing it at Netflix, hopefully it finds an audience in arthouse lovers with an appreciation for elegantly focused dramas. Like its gentle characters scattered across the ocean, “Bantú Mama” leaps out for connection amidst the noise.

Grade: B+

“Bantú Mama” is now streaming on Netflix.

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