Film Review: Atlantics
Originally published December 6, 2019
The Atlantic Ocean thrashes against the coast of Senegal. A futuristic tower looms over the country’s capital and a light at the top pulsates like a lighthouse. The workers building it have not been paid for three months. Some leave for Spain in the dead of night. They don’t make it, losing their lives to the waves. Ada (Mane Binetta Sane), a lover of one of the doomed men, is betrothed to another man. On their wedding night, their bed is set on fire and a young investigator is assigned to the crime. Soon after, relatives of the deceased come down with a fever. The men are not truly gone. It starts as a potential Romeo and Juliet and morphs into a striking treatise on capitalism, class and autonomy wrapped in a ghost story.
Atlantics is director Mati Diop’s feature debut, but it works with the certainty and poise of a director’s 15th feature. The film’s 104 minutes feel crisp and clean without a frame going to waste. Diop, co-writer Olivier Demangel, editor Aël Dallier Vega and cinematographer Claire Mathon ensure the audience only sees or hears what they were meant to see.
The film’s focus is on the women left behind. Viewers don’t see the men go, their deaths or the act of arson that drives most of the plot. Instead, the film is primarily seen from Ada’s perspective and the film rarely breaks course in this regard. Even in conversations where another director might have shot-reverse-shot, Diop instead hangs on characters and focuses on their reactions to the things that happen to them. It’s a technique much like the film itself: Ada discovers her agency but is not the fundamental driver of the story.
She gives the stellar cast room to develop their characters beyond what’s in the script. Where each of these characters could have been rough sketches, the audience instead sees fully fledged people with lives beyond the four corners of the screen. The physical performances are subtle yet easily convey what any character’s emotions at any given time.
The ocean is a near-constant presence, serving as a reminder of the workers and the potential one has in escape. Its thrum permeates most of the film’s sonic landscape but never becomes so evident as to be meaningless.
Also constant is the city of Dakar itself, teeming with life even in the film’s darkest moments. Atlantics’ Dakar is a lived-in place even as a clean and gleaming tower represents a potentially hostile future.
The film falters only when asked to combine the two plots of Ada and the crime consistently throughout the film. The script takes its time in clearly establishing a link between the two and finally puts all the pieces in a stunning final 20 minutes.
Atlantics is a nearly flawless first feature. It takes a clear sociopolitical stance on a topic but applies it in a novel way with a great script, performances and score. It’s Senegal’s submission for the Best International Feature Film Oscar. Do not be surprised if it appears on nomination day.
Atlantics is on Netflix. There are far, far worse ways to spend an hour and a half.
Final score: 8/10