In 2019 French-African director Mati Diop had the distinguished (and overdue) honor of being the first black woman to compete for the main prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Impressively, her first feature film “Atlantics” finished in second place behind Bong Joon Ho’s exceptional “Parasite”. That’s quite the debut.
“Atlantics” is a genre defying drama that opens like a documentary and ends as a poignant supernatural romance. In between we get a police procedural, a creepy ghost story, an examination of class injustice, and a rarely-seen look at Europe’s refugee crisis. Diop sets her film in the Senegalese coastal capital of Dakar where an ultra-modern skyscraper is being built. This is where we first meet a poor construction worker named Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore).
The film opens at a pretty high temperature as we see Souleiman and other frustrated laborers confronting their foreman. It turns out they’ve been stiffed out of three months worth of wages by the wealthy businessman in charge who refuses to answer the foreman’s calls. Discouraged and fed up, Souleiman and his friends head back to their village on the outskirts of the city.
Diop makes a surprising shift by introducing Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) and making her the lead character. She and Souleiman are in love but cultural/religious tradition has her set to marry the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla). The day before her arranged wedding Souleiman and several fellow construction workers vanish after secretly hopping a boat for Spain. Strange events begin to occur following their disappearance including a series of fires which police detective Issa (Amadou Mbow) is called to investigate.
It’s here that Diop makes yet another unexpected shift which I won’t spoil. It’s an interesting twist (if you want to call it that) even if it doesn’t come across as fully thought out. It brings a supernatural element that’s never really explained in a satisfying way. I’m not saying I need rules and thorough guidelines to how things like this work in a movie. But here it’s required that we simply go with it and I couldn’t help but have some questions.
While the final act of “Atlantics” may lack some narrative detail, the film as a whole lacks nothing when it comes to its visual style. Diop has such a clear and perceptive eye. She and cinematographer Claire Mathon use the camera as an essential storytelling tool. Some scenes are shot with a dreamy haze imbuing them with an evocative, otherworldly quality. Others simply focus on the gentle ceaseless sway of the Atlantic Ocean as various levels of sunlight dance on the surface.
The metaphor-rich imagery speaks to many of the feelings at the heart of Diop’s film – loneliness, betrayal, an ever-present longing. But they also convey a silent rage towards the many injustices vividly portrayed throughout this haunting tale. It’s one of several indicators that this the work of smart and savvy filmmaker we all should keep our eye on.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS