Review: Mati Diop’s ‘Atlantics’ is a hypnotic weave of romance and ghost story
There’s a haunting moment early on in “Atlantics,” an exquisite, shiveringly beautiful debut feature from the French Senegalese director Mati Diop. We are speeding along the sun-drenched coast of Dakar, Senegal, in the back of a truck carrying a group of men from a construction site where they have been working for more than three months without pay. One of them is Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a handsome young laborer who stares off into space, ignoring the raucous chatter around him and occasionally casting a glance at the waves crashing against the shore. He has the look of a guy who’s run out of options and is ready to make a break for it.
Souleiman isn’t the protagonist of “Atlantics,” but it’s significant that Diop introduces him first, establishing the story’s human stakes and the first of its many systemic cruelties. Within moments the perspective will shift to Souleiman’s 17-year-old girlfriend, Ada (a sharp, gimlet-eyed Mame Sané), whom we see kissing Souleiman on the beach and in the ruins of an abandoned building. She has no idea that these embraces will be their last, at least for a while. Visiting some girlfriends the next day, she learns that Souleiman and several of his fellow workers left Senegal the night before, setting out in a small boat bound for Spain.
We never see those men again — at least, not in their present state — and their abrupt departure sends their loved ones reeling. “Atlantics,” which won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and will represent Senegal in the upcoming Academy Awards race for best international feature, grew out of Diop’s 2009 short film, “Atlantiques,” which drew from the real-life experiences of young African men setting out on the dangerous trip to Europe.
In its present, richly elaborated form, the movie also suggests a sly inversion of “The Odyssey,” albeit one in which the women, rather than waiting on the narrative sidelines, assume an active role in their own heroic epic. (It also bears an unmistakable spiritual kinship with the 1973 Senegalese classic “Touki Bouki,” a tale of migration, romance and separation directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty, Diop’s late uncle.) What begins as a realist snapshot of the global migrant crisis gradually expands into an aching story of love, loss and the return of the repressed.
Along the way it detours into a mystery, a ghost story and a tale of bodily possession — a transformation achieved with a few eerie visual touches that are all the more persuasive for their lack of fuss. Drawing on a potent vein of local mythology, Diop weaves these paranormal elements into her canvas with thrift, ingenuity and bracing matter-of-factness. In her hands, a vengeful ghost seems no more absurd or irrational than, say, the futuristic high-rise tower that’s being erected on the coast. Nor is it any more grotesque than the obscene wealth of men like Omar (Babacar Sylla), the spoiled scion to whom Ada has been promised in marriage.
In one scene Diop draws our attention to the enormous white marriage bed that will soon be Ada and Omar’s. It’s a stunning, ludicrous image of extravagance and oppression that Ada beholds with quiet scorn, even as her visiting girlfriends coo over it with mock envy. It’s hard to stifle a chuckle, or a cheer, when the bed suddenly goes up in flames, the major casualty of a house fire set by an unseen arsonist. A young police detective, Issa (Amadou Mbow), is brought in to investigate, leading to further twisty complications of suspicion, guilt, mistaken identity and supernatural body hopping.
Times critic Justin Chang is filing regular dispatches from the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival, which runs through Saturday in France.
Who or what started the fire? “Atlantics” hazily circles that question while never losing sight of the much more monstrous crime here, namely the ruthless system of capitalist exploitation that ultimately sent a boat full of unpaid workers to their near-certain deaths. It positions this exploitation on a continuum with the religious and patriarchal tyranny that keeps women in their place, as seen in a discreet, piercing scene when Ada is taken to a doctor’s office for a virginity test — a subject that, to judge by recent headlines, reverberates well beyond this movie’s borders.
You may have seen Diop as one of the two leads in “35 Shots of Rum,” the marvelous 2008 film from the masterful, often elliptical French director Claire Denis. Consciously or not, Diop seems to have absorbed some measure of Denis’ aesthetic influence, which is both a fine thing and a tough burden for a first film to shoulder. With its loose-limbed approach to narrative, “Atlantics” may occasionally frustrate your desire for cohesion and clarity; it’s more effective at distilling ideas into images than at building and sustaining human drama from moment to moment. (The hypnotic cinematography is by Claire Mathon, the equally hypnotic score by Fatima Al Qadiri.)
But what seems wholly coherent throughout is Diop’s determination to restore to Ada and her girlfriends the authority and autonomy that have been taken from them. She accomplishes that here with scenes of temporarily possessed women, with their chillingly zombified, milk-white eyes, confronting Mr. Ndiaye (Diankou Sembene), the boss who refuses to pay his workers’ wages. She does it, too, with a tender, heart-swelling love story whose final consummation defies every kind of logic and yet also makes every kind of sense.
By the end, this lovely, imperfect vision achieves a kind of melancholy sublimity. For a brief moment, Diop’s weave of music and image coalesces into something quietly remarkable, a dispatch from between two worlds. The sights and sounds of the ocean somehow seem both comforting and terrifying, and a lonely beachfront bar becomes a place of romance and refuge, a way station for the living and the dead.
(In Wolof with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; starts streaming Nov. 29 on Netflix
(In Wolof with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Beginning Nov. 15 at Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; starts streaming Nov. 29 on Netflix
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