Bantú Mama (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A small interesting film from the Dominican Republic

“Bantú Mama”, which was released on Netflix in US a few days ago and also recently selected as the Dominican Republic’s official submission to Best International Film Oscar, is a small film too good to be overlooked in my inconsequential opinion. Although it simply presents a modestly shabby human drama on the surface, it handles its story, background, and characters with considerable care and thoughtfulness, and it may be regarded as a solid breakthrough for its promising director who will probably impress us more in the future.

At the beginning, the movie succinctly establishes how a young African woman named Emma (Clarisse Albrecht) gets herself into a big trouble shortly after leaving her current residence in France. She initially seems to be merely enjoying a vacation in Santo Domingo she could somehow afford, but it gradually turns out that she got herself involved with a local criminal organization, and we soon see her nervously attempting to smuggle a considerable amount of drug as demanded at the airport.

Unfortunately, Emma is arrested by the local police right before getting on the airplane, and then she becomes a fugitive once she manages to escape thanks to a sudden accident in the middle of her transfer to the jail. She happens to be within a very notorious slum neighborhood in Santo Domingo, but she is fortunately rescued by T.I.N.A. (Scarlet Reyes) and $hulo (Arturo Perez), two adolescent siblings who have struggled to earn their living for themselves in the absence of their parents.

T.I.N.A. and $hulo willingly take Emma to their little shabby residence where they have lived along with their little young brother Cuki (Euris Javiel). Because T.I.N.A. and $hulo are usually busy with earning money by any means necessary outside, Emma naturally comes to take care of Cuki at their home, and we observe how she gradually comes to function like a mother figure in the house as she stays longer than expected.

Quite grateful to Emma for her little but precious help, T.I.N.A. tries to help Emma go back to France as much as possible. Because the local police is still looking for her, Emma should be really careful especially when she is outside the house, and she surely has a tough lesson when she almost gets arrested and then exposed later in the story.

Meanwhile, the movie also pays attention to how things have been desperate for T.I.N.A and $hulo. Expecting to earn some money sooner or later via some drug dealing, $hulo thinks things will soon get a bit better for him and his two younger siblings, but T.I.N.A. knows better as clearly discerning lots of despair and desperation in their slum neighborhood. As she bitterly admits at one point, she and her older brother will probably be stuck there for the rest of their life even if they are lucky enough to avoid jail unlike their prisoner father, and that is why she is really concerned about Cuki’s life.

At least, things do not look bad for now thanks to Emma’s presence in the house. When she does some African dance along with Cuki and his two older siblings, the mood gets lightened up a bit in the house, and the movie subtly makes an interesting point on the racial and cultural background of its main characters. While Emma is quite different from Cuki and his two older siblings in many aspects, she and they make some human connection via their shared racial background, and that eventually motivates T.I.N.A. to make a hard but necessary choice around the end of the story.

These and other soft and sensitive moments in the film are often contrasted with the gritty realism of the slum neighborhood surrounding its main characters, and director/co-writer/co-producer Ivan Herrera, who previously made a feature film debut with “Pueto Pa’ Mi” (2015), and his crew members including cinematographer Sebastian Cabrera Chelin did a commendable job of imbuing the screen with a considerable degree of verisimilitude. According to the IMDB trivia, they used only one camera lens during their shooting, but the movie does not look cheap or shabby at all, and it even has some sublime poetic moments including the recurring ones involved with a kite in the sky.

In case of the small main cast of the film, they are quite natural in their unadorned ensemble performance. Clarisse Albrecht, who wrote the screenplay with Herrera, gracefully conveys to us her character’s gradual development along the story, and we can really sense how much her character is true to herself in the end. Euris Javiel and Arturo Perez are effective as two very different siblings who have no choice but to stick togeher for not only themselves for their dear little younger brother, and Euris Javiel is also fine as another crucial part of the story.

In conclusion, “Bantú Mama” is fairly impressive in terms of mood, storytelling, and performance, and Herrera shows here that he is another interesting new filmmaker to watch. Although it surely requires some patience as your typical arthouse movie, the movie will engage you more than expected once you give it a chance, and you may even come to wish that it is a little longer. That is surely something not many movies can do, isn’t it?

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