One of the best reasons to have Netflix in 2019 is to watch French-Senegalese director Mati Diop’s brilliant feature film debut “Atlantics.” It’s hard not to use a lot of glowing adjectives to describe the beauty and the impact of the story and how the director chooses to tell it. When it comes to the all-important issue of tone, Diop glides with grace between genres and moods and in so doing, she controls and teases the viewer’s very idea of what the film is really about.
Here’s the story. Unhappy construction workers justly demand that their unpaid wages be paid, highlighting that their families depend upon these wages. Unfortunately, they don’t get their wages and take the long drive home. One of the truly disgusted is young Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) who gives the bad news to his loving girlfriend, Ada (Mama Sané), where they kiss in an abandoned building near the beach. As most young lovers do, they fight and she leaves him in an emotional knot choosing to spend time with his “friends” and I use the quotes to underscore that not everyone present is an actual ally.
The story is set in Dakar, a city firmly packed with the very poor and extremely wealthy. Diop drops us into the drama of the city, the heartbeat of the neighborhoods, filed with its commerce and its traffic.
There is something special about the Atlantic Ocean and the director uses it as an important symbol of life itself and the human condition to fight and yearn for freedom.
Ada is playing a dangerous game with Souleiman’s heart, whom she loves despite being engaged to a rich family’s son who is employed in Italy. Her fiancé returns to prepare for their wedding, gifting her a rose gold iPhone on the same day that
Souleiman braves a boat ride hoping to get to Spain.
Then, the director makes a tremendous pivot and the film transforms itself into a ghost story. To dive deeper is to spoil the twists and turns and I won’t do it, and you’re welcome. What I will share is that Diop is a brave director. Her choice of visual effects and music helps to build the structure of the complex story of a people wrapped in fury and gestating depression.
Darkness hides the strange things that begin to occur with rumors of demonic possession being an answer. When an unexplained fire ruins Ada’s wedding and the unloyal land developer who cheated Souleiman, and others, receives an unwelcome visit, the locals all believe that an evil spirit is coming for revenge. Strange things continue and a young detective, Issa (Amadou Mbow)—a rising star—is put on the case and is suddenly plagued with health problems. Feeling alone, Ada finds solace at the beachside bar that is managed by her friend Dior (Nicole Sougou).
What makes the story so compelling is that cruelty is routine. Souleiman would have never gone on that boat, to Italy, if he was paid his due wages. The inequality of women in the Dakar culture is cruel for Ada, stuck in the center of the patriarchy system. The shift of what’s expected of young girls getting married is two-sided. Young men don’t have to be virgins but young brides must and her fiancé’s parents force her to undergo a humiliating virginity test.
Ada has no real place for solace or advice. Most of her friends stand on one side of the argument, deeply judgemental and materialistic to the bone.
Diop places the film where an audience can get it. She doesn’t flinch for showing us the harsh facts of life in Dakar.
“Atlantics” is a deeply haunting film. Sensual. Poetic. Exciting and important.
“Atlantics” — In Wolof, French, and English — now playing on Netflix.