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Mami Wata

"Mami Wata” is a combination fable and thriller from Benin, shot in black-and-white and set in a seaside village called Iyi. It starts with a shot of the ocean at night. The crashing surf is blurred almost to abstraction. The water only occupies the bottom of the frame. The rest is darkness. Writer/director C.J. 'Fiery' Obasi creates a mood, then a feeling of wonder and dread, by holding on to the image longer than most movies would. 

The movie does this all through its running time, never showing an image or situation in quite the way you anticipate and staying on it for more or less time than you expect. The rhythm is unbalancing. You feel detached from whatever preconceptions you carried in. The film casts a spell, and the spell persists to the end.

"Mami Wata" is populated by men and women who dress and act as if they're still in a previous century, resisting modernity. The title refers to the Nigerian goddess of water, wealth, and health, who watches over individual lives. This is a matriarchal society. The anointed priestess and interpreter of Mami Wata, as well as the arbiter and problem-solver for everyone in the village, is Mama Efe (Rita Edochie). 

Mama Efe is powerful and respected, but some of her people are starting to feel that she's losing her connection to the goddess or that she is too set in her ways to understand that the village can only survive if it adapts to modern life. Mama Efe has two children: her biological daughter Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) and her adoptive daughter Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen). Prisca is almost completely estranged from Mama Efe partly because she shares the feelings of dissatisfied fellow villagers, but there's a personal component as well, one that transcends culture and will be understandable to anyone who fears that blood trumps every other bond. Zinwe is more loyal, but she's got her own doubts. She wants to be reassured that the old ways are right, that the magic is strong, and that she will inherit all. 

But her mother is not the force she used to be. The decisive event in the early part of the story is the death of a sick young boy. Mama Efe treats his illness the old way, with incantations and a potion. The ritual fails. The citizens confront her, demanding answers to questions they once discussed only in private. Why doesn't the village have a doctor? Or other hallmarks of modern life—a police force, a fire station, electricity? There could be a rebellion here under the right circumstances. 

Then, a man washes up on the beach as if fulfilling a prophecy or curse. His name is Jasper (Emeka Amakeze). He exudes confidence, power, and the insinuating, dangerous magnetism that made old-school Hollywood "rebel" actors like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman so popular. Once Jasper enters the picture, the movie becomes more of a political fable, with elements of art-house film noir and crime thrillers that didn't have much of a budget but made up for it with swaggering minimalism. The framing, blocking, and lighting of the shots (by cinematographer Lílis Soares, who won a prize for her work on this film at this year's Sundance Film Festival) amounts to a bridge between the past and the present, which is what the characters yearn for but cannot manifest.

This is not a movie you can pick apart in terms of plausibility or real-world details. It's a dream with its own internal logic and consistency. A person, location, or object always has a specific plot function but is imbued with other meanings and inspires varied interpretations.

The movie doesn’t explain itself. It doesn't need to. It's all there, in the images and performances and sounds. The dialogue is in pidgin English, with subtitles, but the acting, writing, and filmmaking are so precise that there may be times when you forget to read the subtitles. You know what these characters want. You feel what they feel. You see through their eyes.

Obasi said before shooting that he wanted to make an otherworldly, trancelike film. He and his collaborators have achieved that and then some. This is a work in the tradition of David Lynch, Jane Campion (particularly "The Piano" and "Power of the Dog"), Alejandro Jodorowsky ("El Topo"), Jim Jarmusch ("Dead Man"), and, in the framing of some the dialogue scenes, Yasujirō Ozu ("Tokyo Story"). But the movie has its own unique life force, and such confidence that if you're tuned into its wavelength, you'll forget to speculate on what will happen next. Instead, you'll be immersed in whatever is happening at that moment, whether it’s men and women flirting and dancing in a local bar, the village erupting in distress, or the sisters arguing on a beach at night, their faces and bodies etched with white light that captures what it feels like when modern eyes have re-acclimated to the natural world, and you only need the moon to see.

Now playing in theaters. 

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.

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Film Credits

Mami Wata movie poster

Mami Wata (2023)

Rated NR

107 minutes

Cast

Evelyne Ily Juhen as Prisca

Uzoamaka Aniunoh as Zinwe

Emeka Amakeze as Jasper

Rita Edochie as Mama Efe

Kelechi Udegbe as Jabi

Tough Bone as Ero

Tim Ebuka as Moussa

Sofiath Sanni as Alima

David Avincin Oparaeke as Ajah

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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