The capricious ocean is a recurrent, mesmerizing image in Mati Diop’s feature debut “Atlantics,” but given its perfidious connotations for the people of Senegal, who’ve lost so many souls to its depths, the director ensures the rolling waves remain hypnotic rather than beautiful. It’s the right decision for this romantic and melancholy film, more apt than some of the flawed narrative choices that frustrate though don’t compromise the atmosphere of loss and female solidarity in the story of a young woman whose love has died at sea. Part social commentary, part ghost tale, “Atlantics” will get a major boost from its Cannes competition slot and could see strong international sales.
While better known as an actress, Diop’s been steadily making a mark for herself as a director with shorts and the poetic medium-length “A Thousand Suns,” most of which deal with the complex relationship Senegalese men and women have with their home country. “Atlantics” is no exception, picking up on issues the director broached in her 2009 short “Atlantiques,” but rather than continuing to focus on the story of a man who tried to escape economic hardship via a treacherous ocean journey to Spain, she shifts to the women who remain behind. The result offers mixed levels of satisfaction, most successful in capturing the protagonist’s leap into adulthood and her increasing reliance on the forthright, independent-minded women around her.
A giant, incongruous Dubai-style tower (nicely computer generated) is near completion on the outskirts of Dakar, built thanks to the backbreaking labor of locals who’ve not been paid for months. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) and his coworkers are fed up, and after work, when he meets his love Ada (Mama Sané), he’s clearly holding back from telling her something important. Convinced they’ll be seeing each other later that evening, Ada tells him to wait, and instead visits her conservative-minded friend Mariama (Mariama Gassama), who berates her for entertaining thoughts of Souleiman when she’s about to be married to well-to-do Omar (Babacar Sylla). Later that evening, Ada sneaks out of her family home and heads to a beachside nightclub, where her friends are in despair: A group of young men, including Souleiman, have just set out for Spain in an open boat, tempting fate like so many others in the hopes of earning a living in Europe.
Ada’s illicit relationship with Souleiman makes it impossible to acknowledge her grief publicly, though she can’t disguise her disinterest in Omar (their pairing is a major weak plot point given that Diop doesn’t bother to explain why the groom’s parents would want to align themselves with Ada’s less economically privileged family). At the wedding, preceded by a captivating scene of female guests arriving at night, their celebratory singing clashing with composer Fatima Al Qadiri’s markedly warped chords, Mariama tells the clearly depressed Ada that she’s seen Souleiman among the crowd; shortly after, while the party is still in swing, the bridal bed is set on fire by an unknown arsonist.
Young investigator Issa (Amadou Mbow) is assigned the case and cracks down hard on Ada, convinced that Souleiman was responsible. The young woman tells him it can’t be true, that Souleiman was either at sea or in Spain, but Issa keeps pushing despite a mysterious illness that threatens to put him out of action. Curiously, many of Ada and Dior’s friends are also feverish, the cause soon made clear when the sick women are seen, milky-eyed, descending on the house of corrupt entrepreneur Mr. N’Diaye (Diankou Sembene), the man who failed to pay his workers their wages.
Audiences will be divided as to whether Diop makes a bold or easy choice by moving into ghost territory as the souls of the men drowned at sea possess these women’s bodies long enough to demand their back-pay. On the one hand, it gives those left behind a supernatural sense of agency, augmenting the strong-willed streak of independence they exhibited earlier in stark contrast to the hijab-wearing conformist Mariama (it’s a pity Diop didn’t include a hijab-wearing friend among the independent group as well). However, the device also feels a little pat and has difficulty balancing a certain chilling creepiness with a satisfying sense of catharsis. More problematic is the script’s uncertain handling of Issa, conceptually ill-formed and whose position as the only male to become similarly possessed seems designed largely to avoid any same-sex “awkwardness” towards the end.
After several films and documentaries looking at Senegalese men who make the dangerous Atlantic voyage as refugees (including Moussa Touré’s “The Pirogue”), it’s refreshing to focus on the women left behind, facing lives of painful emotional, not to mention financial, interruption. Diop and co-writer Olivier Demangel work in just enough of the country’s disparate hierarchies to give a greater sense of social context, though “Atlantics” works best as a romance film given how quickly viewers feel invested in the palpable emotional ties between Ada and Souleiman. A fine director of actors, Diop skillfully selected and guided her largely non-professional cast, drawing out believable three-dimensional performances graced by inner radiance.
The visual palette is largely muted, the oceanfront robed in a hazy light while many other scenes are shot at night, a time when the balance between freedom and danger adds to the inherent tension. The latter quality is further brought out by Fatima Al Qadiri’s dexterous score, adept at underlining states of mind and melding dissonant strains in appropriately low-key ways.