★★★☆☆

Escaping Paris for a week’s rest and relaxation in the Dominican Republic, Emma (Clarisse Albrecht) says goodbye to pet parrot Coco in the opening moments of Bantú Mama. As the title card appears, the camera focuses on the revolving top of a small, statuesque metal ornament, upon which a human figure stands; arms outstretched, gently rocking to and fro, back and forth. Dynamic yet off-kilter, it’s this keen visual metaphor that sets up director Ivan Herrera’s debut film.

For Bantú Mama moves, occasionally jolts, with the ebb and flow of a restless, unsettled soul. Emma, whose identity and sense of direction in life will spin off its axis more than once in the film, is French-Cameroonian. In a moment of tranquil reflection, she confides in the women braiding her hair at the luxury resort that she has never visited the country of her ancestors, but that she would like to go one day. There’s the impression she undertakes this Caribbean trip on a whim. Or is it rather that something unseen or unspoken is driving her, something she can’t quite define. As much as she is getting away from – we assume – a mundane day-to-day in Paris, and the suggestion of unwanted male attention on her estate, she’s looking for something.  

A jarring move to a high-angle shot and an immediate, pulsing note of warning on the score prompt an unexpected change of course.  And it is upon an improbable, illegal act that Emma undertakes that a viewer’s investment in Bantú Mama really hinges. Why would she run this risk? Can the financial gain possibly outweigh the punishment? No spoilers here, but it’s a crux that may be a bridge too far for some. Nonetheless, the plot contrives – with a moment of extremely well edited, breath-taking action – to place Emma in the path of Tina (Scarlett Reyes), her elder brother (Arturo Perez) and young Cuki (Euris Javiel). 

With their father in jail and mother dead, the elder children – Tina especially – nurse Emma back to health. The roles will slowly evolve, before she becomes the titular motherly figure of an improvised family unit. Though perhaps far-fetched, the ease and closeness with which the performers interact do make it wholly believable. Sought by the police and confined to home, Emma guides and educates the children – the inquisitive Cuki in particular who asks whether Cameroon is in Haiti – with an understanding of their shared African heritage. That she is both French and Bantú, that these parts of her being co-exist.  

Living the dangers and hardships of life in Santo Domingo, Tina and her elder brother continue the family drug business, but she wants a better life for Cuki. Albrecht – who co-wrote the script with Herrera and exec-produced the project – is outstanding in the lead role. With a commanding presence on screen, at odds with but effectively communicating the precarious nature of her character’s circumstances, she confidently shoulders the film. And Reyes is highly impressive as Tina, displaying a maturity well beyond her years as both character and actor.  

The film’s conclusion, which requires as much suspension of disbelief in a viewer as it does a leap of faith for Emma, is again a questionable plot device. However, Herrera’s exploration of the African diaspora in Bantú Mama does ask questions about identity, family, and the meaning of home which truly resonate.

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Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63