A young woman named Ada is in love with a man named Souleiman, even though she’s facing an arranged marriage to someone else. Unlike Ada’s betrothed, Souleiman is poor and struggling with money problems. That’s the deceptively simple premise of Atlantics, a fascinating film from 2019 with a genre-bending story that’s equal parts romance, mystery, and ghost story.
Available on Netflix, with a rumored DVD and Blu-ray release later this year, Atlantics takes place in and around Dakar, the capital of Senegal, located along West Africa’s Atlantic coastline. The film opens on a fog-enshrouded construction site with an awe-inspiring ultramodern building looming in the background. Workers are bustling about, wrapping up another workday. Souleiman is one of them. A brouhaha erupts when they’re told by human resources that their boss is away on business and didn’t leave any money to pay their wages. To make matters worse, it’s been three months since they were last paid.
As Souleiman heads home in the back of a pickup truck along with a group of coworkers, the film cuts back and forth between them and the same futuristic building featured in the opening shot. The juxtaposition of a monolithic symbol of economic power and a truckload of poor workers says it all. Atlantics’ striking visuals often speak louder than words.
When Souleiman arrives at his impoverished neighborhood, he spots Ada, played by radiant newcomer Mame Bineta Sane. They lock eyes as a passing train forms an impassable barrier, creating a series of images steeped in portentous meaning as they stand facing each other, yet separated. When they meet up later at a nearby beach, Souleiman gives Ada a necklace; it’s a going away present, but she doesn’t know it. He wants to explain, but Ada, needing to get home, sidesteps his attempts, promising more of her time later that night. Unbeknownst to Ada, Souleiman and a bunch of his workmates are about to board a ship bound for Spain in pursuit of jobs that actually pay. Not long after Souleiman’s ship has sailed, a series of inexplicable events begin to occur as heartbroken Ada struggles to maintain control of her life. Ada’s story is what Atlantics is ultimately about. To say more would undermine the many surprising ways it unfolds.
Atlantics was written and directed by French actress turned filmmaker, Mati Diop. Even though it’s her debut feature, Diop’s bold choices exude confidence. Her occasionally oblique storytelling trusts the intelligence of her audience; what may initially appear as superfluous puzzle pieces prove essential when they finally snap in place to complete the bigger picture. Her directorial style – using handheld camerawork to capture naturalistic performances within actual locations – is reminiscent of Belgium’s Luc and Jean Pierre Dardenne. Considering the subtext of Atlantics, Diop also shares the Dardenne’s disdain for social injustices. Speaking of which, it’s not without irony that Atlantics made history by becoming the first film made by a black woman entered into competition at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, eventually winning the Grand Prize of the Jury award.
If I were to nitpick, I would say Diop didn’t quite stick the landing; the ending monologue becomes a feminist pronouncement that doesn’t feel entirely earned. But that’s a minor quibble. By any measure, Atlantics is an auspicious first film.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.