Atlantics (2019): Mati Diop’s Auspicious Debut, Senegal’s Entry for the Bets International Film Oscar

Mati Diop makes an auspicious feature directorial debut with Atlantics, an original, haunting and dazzling film that cannot be compared to any other film.

World premiering at the 2019 Cannes Film Fest (in competition), Atlantics won the Jury Grand Prize, immediately establishing its Franco-Senegalese writer-director as a major talent to watch.

Diop is not exactly an obscure figure, who emerged “out of nowhere.”  She is connected to African-cinema via her uncle, Djibril Diop Mambéty, who directed the 1973 film Touki Bouki.

She may also be recognized to some viewers as an actor, having played the young woman who pulls away from her father in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum in 2008, and co-star on Simon Killer, in 2012 (among others)

The new feature (and its title) is an expanded version of Diop’s 2009 short, “Atlantiques,” which had played in some major film festivals.

Labels don’t do justice to many films, especially not to this one, which has been described as a hybrid of art and genre film, a spooky immigrants ghost story–it is both and more.

Set mostly on and around the beaches of Dakar in Senegal, Atlantics, the movie, at least on one level, is a romantic triangle. Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), the sensual and carefree protagonist, is torn between her illicit love for the penniless construction worker Souleiman (Traore) and her public acceptance of her wealthy, imperious fiancé Omar (Babacar Sylla).

When Souleiman and his fellow workers decide to risk a dangerous ocean crossing for a better life in Spain, their boat is capsized by a freak wave, and they all drown in a storm.

When his mother, friends, and an inspector conduct an investigation about his whereabouts, Ada denies any knowledge, claiming that “he is either at sea or in Spain.”

 

Meanwhile, the women in the village begin to show bizarre signs, both physically and mentally. One girl faints, another is freezing, and still another one keeps looking up. Omar’s parents demand that Ada goes to a clinic for a virginity test.

In fact, the men “return” to the bars of Dakar as white-eyed zombie spirits, who inhabit the bodies of their former girlfriends.

While the storytelling may not be straightforward or entirely clear, by conventional standards, it’s the eerie mood, and dazzling imagery that make Atlantics such a memorable, even haunting film.

Rolling Stone

A group of young construction workers are arguing with their boss. He hasn’t paid them for three months; the skyscraper they’ve been laboring over for years simply towers above Senegal’s hazy cityscape, unfinished. One of these young men, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), gazes tellingly out at the waves as they drive away. He meets up with Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young woman set to be married in a little over a week to a handsome, wealthy man she doesn’t love. They kiss in a secluded section of the boardwalk and make plans to meet that night at the local club. When Ada arrives at the hangout, she discovers — along with every other female present — that the entire crew have “taken to the sea.” They’ve attempted to make the perilous journey from their home country to Spain via a boat. Their absence leaves a serious void in the lives of those left behind.

Days pass, and no one’s heard from any of these men. Everyone fears the worst. Then, on Ada’s wedding night, someone tells her that she just saw Souleiman at the ceremony. Suddenly, the newlywed’s bed bursts into flames. A young, eager detective (Amadou Mbow) suspects foul play; he also thinks that Ada is hiding the whereabouts of her lover. Then she starts getting mysterious texts on her phone. Also, many of those mourning their missing boyfriends and brothers inexplicably find themselves leaving their houses in the middle of the night, clad in nightgowns and pajamas, shuffling toward a place that seems to be calling out to them….

A mood, a metaphor, a romantic parable, a character study, an indictment of capitalism as the new colonialism (though when haven’t these two things been intertwined?) — Diop distills from this steeped brew a singular take on a sorority of young women butting up against the constraints of their society. Her sense of visual storytelling is breathtaking; the way she and cinematographer Claire Mathon use colors, from the green glow of a dancefloor to a tiny patch of red shirt peeking out from a black sweater, to channel atmospherics and emotional states is peerless. Nothing — not a lingering shot, not a cut, and certainly not a gesture or word from Sane, who shoulders the bulk of the narrative with extraordinary grace — feels false or out of place.

Reunion at the end, over shots of the sea

 

And even when things start to dip into supernatural territory, Atlantics remains oddly grounded, still dedicated to tackling a topical subject without being dogmatic. You feel as if you’re watching something that’s region-specific, yet it never makes its characters feel like “others.” Nor do you ever sense that the act of giving these often agency-less females a voice is something based in charity, because Diop makes the endeavor feel like a necessity. It ends with a moment of desire and transcendental bliss, as well as a settling of scores and a glance into a mirror that, in a single edit, becomes a stare fixed straight at the audience. The look is not accusatory, however, so much as a suggestion of complicity, a sharing of a secret. It doubles as a nifty summation of the entire film. Atlantics pulls you into an experience. The empathy machine runs at full speed here. Ada, c’est moi.

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