Atlantics Review

Mati Diop’s Atlantics is notable for a number of reasons. First, it’s the first film from a black woman to ever play in competition in the Cannes film festival, a notable achievement in and of itself. Second, it’s tied to a number of other films at this festival that twist genres, incorporating elements from horror and thriller film into what’s ostensibly a story of lost love, where the ghosts of the past continue to haunt those left behind.

Evocatively shot in Dakar, Senegal, the film begins on a construction site where a number of young men, toiling away on a large commercial tower, storm the office of their foreman demanding wages that have gone unpaid for months. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) leaves the confrontation to hook up with his young girlfriend Ada (Mama Sane), whose wide eyes and open expression much of the film rests upon. While Ada is already set to marry a local rich man days away, the two connect by the smashing waves of the ocean that gives the film its name, the turbulent waters repeatedly evoked as overt metaphor for the challenges facing the individuals and their country.

The next day Ada learns that this was actually a kiss goodbye, as Souleiman and his worker companions have given up on their land, taking one of the rickety boats to try and head for Spain like so many other economic migrants. When the boat goes missing, Ada must confront a live without her love, marrying for convenience while still pining for a life she wishes to control.

Injected into this melancholic storyline are dashes of the supernatural, where the spirits of those lost seek retribution for what has transpired. It’s this dash of the metaphysical that gives the much of its bite, combined with the sympathetic way that Diop and cinematographer Claire Mathon have framed the faces. This mix of ghost film and coming-of-age love story injects a gothic/romantic flare into the sunbaked lands of Senegal, trading stone walls and somber, castle-like venues for shabby beach bars, dusty roads and the crashing of waves.

Diop’s film is more ambitious than it is effective, and the repetition, especially of some of the motifs, makes it very much feel like a short film stretched too thin. There’s an hour of film here that’s drawn out to feature length, making things that should come across as poetic feel more pedantic. Still, when the film works it shines, thanks to committed performances elicited by the director.

Atlantics is flawed, certainly, but it’s equally establishes a bold and new voice in international cinema, one with a keen eye for talent and skills at navigating the challenges of tonal and aesthetic shifts. There’s plenty to admire about the film, and at the very least it’s indicative of a talent to watch, laying the foundation for what’s hopefully a career with even more triumphant results.   

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.