The spirits are scared of me.
French writer/director Mati Diop made a documentary short ten years ago about a group of Senegalese friends who risk their lives to sail along the coast of Africa into Spain with the hope of better lives upon their arrival. It almost seems natural then that her first feature length fictional narrative would piggyback off that story in a bid to shine light on the dangers of illegal immigration, the rampant greed of the rich in Third World countries (a third of Senegal’s population lives below the poverty line), and the struggle to allow yourself to embrace happiness above survival. Atlantique [Atlantics] starts with the plight of Souleiman (Traore) and ends with that of Ada (Mame Bineta Sane)—two souls connected by love who’ve unfortunately become victims to destiny.
Souleiman is stuck in a thankless construction job building a highly touted skyscraper for Mr. N’Diaye (Diankou Sembene). Relegated to long hours without pay for the past three months and evening visits to Dior’s (Nicole Sougou) club to avoid the debt collectors surely waiting at their homes, he and his co-workers have no choice but to set sail. Defeated to the point of believing a journey of almost two-thousand miles on water without a seasoned captain is more likely to succeed than collecting back salary from their boss, they don’t dare tell loved ones what they’re about to do. The plan is set for these young men to push off the Dakar shore by Dior’s just before the women can appear in time to stop them.
Ada is therefore stuck in an arranged marriage her parents and materialistic friends label a gift from God now that the man she adores is gone. Would she have left the security and pedigree Omar (Babacar Sylla) provides had Souleiman stayed long enough to give her a reason? We’ll never know. So there she is on her wedding day—the only attendee whose tears are accompanied by a smile. It’s Dior who actually tries to get her to run away. The woman who’d take Omar’s money without a second thought sees Ada’s pain and knows convenience will never satisfy her longing for passion. But what’s the point? Souleiman and the boys are probably dead since nobody has heard anything. Leaving now guarantees sadness. Staying might watch it disappear.
That’s when Diop and co-writer Olivier Demangel push their rather straightforward narrative off the deep-end into a two-pronged, darkly beautiful, supernatural haunting with Mariama’s declaration that Souleiman has returned. With those words comes an inexplicably ignited fire in Ada and Omar’s bedroom that demands for an invite to the police. A young, under-the-weather inspector named Issa (Amadou Mbow) is assigned the case and his ambition has him guessing that the most likely story for this crazy turn of events is a jealous Souleiman setting the blaze with Ada’s help. While he chases her around town for answers (when not fainting from a heatstroke he cannot seem to shake), however, a vengeful spiritual force begins possessing Dior’s best customers (and Ada’s girlfriends) whenever the sun goes down.
What follows is a wild couple of days with characters falling ill and missing time, white-eyed vessels demanding restitution from N’Diaye upon threat of more arson, and Ada’s desperate search for the love of her life. Because it’s not difficult to figure out how everything connects together, the last forty minutes or so can appear to unfold at too fast a pace to find satisfying closure. I’ll admit too that the sudden shift from focusing on Ada alone to adding a parallel trajectory promising N’Diaye’s comeuppance is tough to accept since interest in the latter pretty much evaporated as soon as Souleiman and company left. So you must trust that Diop has a plan. Ada is our entry point into a much larger story with expanded ramifications.
Things get a little shaky once as time condenses and revelations are made in a sprint to the finish, but Diop definitely sticks the landing. Not only does she give Ada the potential to achieve happiness (albeit in an inventively unique way), she also supplies Souleiman and the other workers gratification even if it’s not quite the sort they sought to achieve. Atlantics becomes a ghost story that intentionally looks to avoid its premise’s inherent “horror” by revealing how its “monsters” were the heroes all along. When you’re talking about a scenario that sees N’Diaye’s corruption ruining lives and Omar’s entitlement dehumanizing those in his reach, it’s easy to understand how the monsters were already present. The power they wield, however, is no match for love.
That’s the driving force of everything good that occurs. It’s why Souleiman left without saying goodbye. Why Ada can’t bring herself to embrace her fate as a trophy wife. And why Dior won’t let Ada’s newer friends talk her into relinquishing her identity when it’s obvious that doing so will trigger an existence of sorrow. With some gorgeous visuals using mirrors to differentiate what’s visible to the characters’ eyes and hearts, we willingly let conceit’s promise and hope wash over us. Its cast of first-time actors also provides an authenticity that’s necessary to understand the mix of emotions on display. Mbow gets the most to do as a victim to circumstance and hubris, but Sane and Traore carry us through with an overwhelming sense of faith in their impossible reunion.
courtesy of Netflix / Les Films du Bal