‘Atlantics’ a Haunting Supernatural Tale of Romance and Societal Injustice

Mati Diop directs and co-writes Atlantics, a supernatural drama feature, which intertwines its fictional narrative with social commentary. The French-Senegalese director’s work boasts 17 wins and 14 nominations so far, including a win at the Cannes Grand Prix. Atlantics is a rude awakening, a melancholic loss, and a haunting romance with Dakar’s societal issues deeply rooted in its story. (KIZJ: 5/5)

Review by Contributing Editor Katusha Jin

Cars pass through the hot and dusty roads of a suburb in Dakar. Scaffolding surrounds the buildings, and voices of discontent young builders grow louder. It’s been months of working on the construction site with no pay. “Souleiman” (Ibrahima Traoré) is one of the many who complain to the leader and demand that they be compensated. Unfortunately, they are brushed aside and ride back home on the back of a truck with empty pockets yet again.

Souleiman stares out into the ocean and sits deep in thought as his coworkers chant a song together. The former is distracted by the pull of the waters and the limitlessness of the horizon. There is an unexplainable helpless surrendering in his eyes. Souleiman heads towards the train tracks where he sees his love, “Ada” (Mame Bineta Sane), standing there calling out his name. Her warm smiles are met with his melancholy gaze. After handing off her big dress bag to her friend, “Mariama” (Mariama Gassama), Ada and Souleiman whisk away to an empty building by the ocean to continue their secret meeting, but their rendezvous is cut short when a man chases them out. It’s getting late and Ada needs to go back home. Souleiman wants a kiss from her, but she refuses and teases him that they will meet later that night. Ada sense that something is wrong, but Souleiman stays quiet. He gifts her a necklaces before she takes off and leaves his eyes lingering on her back as she walks away.

On her way back home, Ada collects her dress from Mariama, who is less than amused, and reminds Ada of her upcoming marriage to “Omar” (Babacar Sylla), who is currently away. She is constantly reminded by her family how coveted her position is as Omar’s fiancée. The wealthy man could give Ada the life that everyone around her wants–one filled with big houses and expensive accessories. But young Ada’s heart is with Souleiman. She sneaks out of her bedroom window to go meet her lover at the bar, only to find out that Souleiman has already set off to sea in search of a better life in Spain. The dangers of traveling in the ocean is known to all, and Ada returns to her bedroom in the early morning with a heavy heart. She grasps her chest as though she cannot breathe. 

Omar returns before the wedding and gives his fiancée a rose gold iPhone. Her indifference rubs Omar the wrong way, but he doesn’t think too much of it and leaves her to nap in the sun. On her wedding night, Ada is surrounded by superficial girls who pose and take pictures in her new beautiful bedroom. The bride, however, cannot seem to hold a smile on her face. This is so far off from the marriage she wants for herself. That night, a fire breaks out in Omar’s bedroom and detective “Issa” (Amadou Mbow) takes on the case of the suspected arson attack. Despite unexplainable health problems, Issa continues his investigation diligently. Ada is amongst those suspected, and is interrogated and forced to take a virginity test.

The film begins as a romance with a Romeo and Juliet feel, but the fire is where the larger story really starts. The investigation takes the story in a very different direction–one that is both haunting and reflective of the society the people of Dakar live in.

Atlantics is a magnetic film directed by Mati Diop that keeps the viewer hooked throughout. Cinematographer Claire Mathon captures its stunning visuals, which is accompanied by the electrifying music by Fatima Al Qadiri. All of this and more decorates the incredibly multi-layered script co-written by Diop and Olivier Demangel. All the leads including Mame Bineta Sane, Amadou Mbow, and Ibrahima Traoré are extremely convincing at portraying how their individual characters experience love, loss, conflict, and societal issues. The movie is also an exciting step for women of color, as Mati Diop is the first Black woman whose film competed for Palme d’Or.

Atlantics  is so much more than a young romance. Yes, there is a longing for love and romance, but this is only the surface upon which the writers build the story. The writers carefully avoid making the film into a series of complaints by anchoring it deeply in a riveting story. Ada is surrounded by family and friends who are oblivious or choose to not address her concerns about the marriage. The society she is in dictates how she should live her life, and in this case, it is in a loveless marriage. Or else, she faces the judgement from her family and superficial friends. The film is also a commentary on the financial burdens of being alive and how in their world, changing your financial position in society is close to impossible. If you are a construction worker who is not getting paid for months, you simply have to deal with that. There is no one who can help you. The only option that Souleiman sees to change his future, is to risk his life at sea and leave everything in Dakar behind. In addition to looking into differences between classes, there is also an emphasis on familial pressures, expectations for the different sexes, and more. 

It’s difficult to explain why the film has such a strong pull on the viewer without giving too much of the story away, but suffice it to say that the further into the film one goes, the deeper we delve into their society’s issues. Supernatural elements trickle into the film seamlessly and they are used in a way that haunts the audience long after the film has ended. This is a heart-wrenching film of revenge towards the unfairness of life, in which beautiful filmmaking is able to portray a scream of so many emotions. It tugs at our perception of equality between humans and begs the question: why do some get so much, whilst others get so little?

© Katusha Jin (12/01/19) FF2 Media

Top Image: Atlantics poster

Middle Image: Ibrahima Traoré as “Souleiman”

Bottom Image: Amadou Mbow as “Issa”

Photo Credits: Netflix

Q: Does Atlantics pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

Yes, but a lot of the conversations between women are about marriage, superficiality, and expectations.

Tags: FF2Media, Katusha Jin, Mati Diop

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As part of the FF2 Media team, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches other associates. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.
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