Atlantics November 13, 2020
1 Hr., 47 Mins.
n Atlantics (2019), fulfillment is evasive. A young woman, soon entering
into an arranged marriage with a wealthy man, doesn’t get to be with the poorer one she truly loves. Construction workers working day and night on a futuristic-looking tower haven’t been paid in three months — and when they bring this up to their superiors, they’re scoffed at. The young woman, born into the working class, is encouraged to make peace with the fact
that she is marrying for comfort, not love or independence. The construction workers, though, are understandably tired of their purgatorial current situation — so they think it best to flee what they’re facing entirely.
At the beginning of Atlantics, which is set in a suburb of Dakar, they depart in the middle of the night for Spain for potential professional opportunity, hoping their flimsy boat can withstand the vagaries of the Atlantic Ocean — a force that paradoxically signifies both a new and a potential loss of one's life. Authorities never confirm whether they make it to their destination. But almost instinctively
we know that they do not. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), the true love of Ada (Mame Sane) — the woman entering that arranged marriage — was one of the workers on board.
Atlantics, the feature-length filmmaking debut from Mati Diop, might have narratively stopped there — been predominantly about how a loss of independence and love affects Ada as she settles into a safe but disappointing adulthood. But Diop, directing with unvarnished, superficially at-odds-with-the-material realism, goes somewhere unexpected. What if the ghosts of those construction workers came back to Dakar, and possessed the bodies of a troupe of local young women to intimidate nightly the man who exploited them into handing over the cash he owes? And what if the spirit of Souleiman, who didn’t say goodbye to Ada before leaving for Spain, were given an additional chance to bring about closure? What seems to be the supernatural makes an appearance a little into what is supposed to be Ada and her husband-to-be’s wedding night. Someone sets alight what is to be the bed on which they consummate their marriage. Witnesses say they saw Souleiman light the match.
All this might make Atlantics sound like an elongated story to be featured in an episode of Tales from the Crypt (1989-’96), a TV series that so often cathartically spotlit horror stories in which those who have been wronged do not view death as an obstacle in the way of making a wrong a right. But Atlantics, which won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is more haunted than horror-movie horrific — which is to say it's not interested in easy spectacle. What it depicts is too painful. Certainly, it features ever-familiar horror-film platitudes — possessions, ghostly revenge. But it doesn’t resemble a pop horror movie. It’s more an eerie ululation dedicated to not only what its characters lose but what those who have been affected by similar circumstances have lost.
One might say the ghost-story elements of Atlantics are more alleviative than they are outrightly horrific — they're the least frightening thing about the movie. (Which is saying something.) They don’t allow for unchecked horrors to continue going unchecked. The real terror in Atlantics comes from capitalistic exploitation, patriarchal dominance. Diop’s marrying of urgent ideas and the macabre is ingenious and careful; it avoids slipping into the hysterical. Despite the film’s omnipresent cruelty, Diop’s direction has a lyricism to it that can’t help but make us want to call the movie beautiful; scenes shot at nighttime especially tend to have a striking spectral glow. She has made a movie that lingers — and one that confirms the arrival of a directorial voice too assured and capable to merely be called promising. It will not take many more movies for Diop to be included in the pantheon of great filmmakers. A