Matt Zoller Seitz
September 29, 2023
“Mami Wata” is a mix fable and thriller from Benin, shot in black-and-white, and set in a seaside village known as Iyi. It begins with a shot of the ocean at night time. The crashing surf is blurred virtually to abstraction. The sound of the water is as loud as it might be should you have been really on a seashore. The water occupies solely the underside a part of the body. The relaxation is darkness. Writer-director C.J. Obasi, creates a temper, then a sense of surprise and dread, by holding on the picture longer than most films would. The film does this all by way of its working time, by no means exhibiting a picture or state of affairs in fairly the best way you anticipate, and at all times staying on it for kind of time than you anticipate. It’s unbalancing. You really feel indifferent from no matter preconceptions you may need carried into the expertise. The movie casts a spell, and the spell persists to the tip.
“Mami Wata” is populated by women and men who costume and act as in the event that they’re nonetheless in a earlier century, resisting modernity. The title refers back to the Nigerian goddess of water, wealth, and well being, who watches over particular person lives. This is a matriarchal society. The anointed priestess and interpreter of Mami Wata, in addition to the arbiter and problem-solver for everybody within the village, is a lady, an anointed priestess known as Mama Efe (Rita Edochie). Mama Efe is highly effective and revered, however a few of her folks are beginning to really feel that she’s dropping her connection to the goddess, or that she is just too set in her methods to grasp that the village can solely survive if it adapts to fashionable life. Mama Efe has two youngsters: her organic daughter Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) and her adoptive daughter Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen). Prisca is sort of utterly estranged from Mama Efe partially as a result of she shares the sentiments of dissatisfied fellow villagers, however there is a private part as properly, one which transcends tradition and might be comprehensible to anybody who fears that blood trumps each different bond. Zinwe is extra loyal, however she’s obtained her personal doubts. She desires to be reassured that the outdated methods are proper, that the magic is robust, and that she’s going to inherit all. But her mom isn’t the drive she was. The decisive occasion within the early a part of the story is the dying of a sick younger boy. Mama Efe treats his sickness the outdated manner, with incantations and a potion. The ritual fails. The residents confront her, demanding solutions to questions they as soon as mentioned in solely in non-public. Why does not the village have a health care provider? Or different hallmarks of contemporary life—a police drive, a hearth station, electrical energy? There might be a insurrection right here, below the precise circumstances. Then, as if fulfilling a prophecy or curse, a person washes up on the seashore. His identify is Jasper (Emeka Amakeze). He exudes confidence and energy, in addition to the insinuating, harmful magnetism that made old-school Hollywood “insurgent” actors like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman so widespread. Once Jasper enters the image, the film turns into extra of a political fable, with components of art-house movie noir, and crime thrillers of a form that did not have a lot of a price range, however made up for it with swaggering minimalism. The framing and blocking and lighting of the pictures (by cinematographer Lílis Soares, who received a prize for her work on this movie on the Sundance Film Festival) quantities to a bridge between previous and the current, which is what the characters yearn for however can’t manifest.
This isn’t a film you may decide aside by way of plausibility or real-world particulars. It’s a dream, with its personal inside logic and consistency. A particular person, location or object at all times has a selected plot perform however is imbued with different potential meanings, and conjures up diversified interpretations. It doesn’t clarify itself. It does not have to. It’s all there, within the pictures and performances and sounds. The dialogue is in pidgin English, with subtitles, however the appearing, writing and filmmaking is so exact that there could also be instances while you neglect to learn the subtitles. You know what these characters need. You really feel what they really feel. You see by way of their eyes. Obasi mentioned previous to taking pictures that he wished to make an otherworldly, trancelike movie. He and his collaborators have achieved that, after which some. This is a piece within the custom of David Lynch, Jane Campion (significantly “The Piano” and “Power of the Dog”), Alejandro Jodorowsky (“El Topo”), Jim Jarmusch (“Dead Man”) and, within the framing of some the dialogue scenes, Yasujio Ozu (“Tokyo Story”). But the film has its personal distinctive life drive, and such confidence that should you’re tuned into its wavelength, you will neglect to take a position on what is going to occur subsequent, and can as an alternative let your self turn out to be immersed in no matter is occurring at that second, whether or not it’s women and men flirting and dancing in an area bar, the village erupting in misery, or the sisters arguing on a seashore at night time, their faces and our bodies etched with white gentle that captures what it seems like when your fashionable eyes have re-acclimated to the pure world, and also you solely want the moon to see.
Matt Zoller Seitz
Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.
Mami Wata (2023)
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First seem at Mami Wata