“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 sound of the water is as loud as it would be if you were actually on a beach. The water occupies only the bottom part of the frame. The rest is darkness.
Writer-director C.J. Obasi, creates a mood, then a feeling of wonder and dread, by holding on 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 always staying on it for more or less time than you expect. It’s unbalancing. You feel detached from whatever preconceptions you might have carried into the experience. 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 a woman, an anointed priestess called 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 simply 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 in part 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 in 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, as if fulfilling a prophecy or curse, a man washes up on the beach. His name is Jasper (Emeka Amakeze). He exudes confidence and power, as well as 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 of a sort that didn’t have much of a budget, but made up for it with swaggering minimalism. The framing and blocking and lighting of the shots (by cinematographer Lílis Soares, who won a prize for her work on this film at the Sundance Film Festival) amounts to a bridge between 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 possible meanings, and inspires varied interpretations.
It 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 is 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 prior to 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, Yasujio 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, and will instead let yourself become 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 your modern eyes have re-acclimated to the natural world, and you only need the moon to see.
Mami Wata (2023)
Evelyne Ily Juhenas Prisca
Uzoamaka Aniunohas Zinwe
Emeka Amakezeas Jasper
Rita Edochieas Mama Efe
Kelechi Udegbeas Jabi
Tough Boneas Ero
Tim Ebukaas Moussa
Sofiath Sannias Alima
David Avincin Oparaekeas Ajah
- C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi
- C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi
- Lílis Soares
- Nathan Delannoy
- Tunde Jegede