There is a wonderfully haunting shot in Mati Diop’s Atlantics that sticks with you long after the film ends. It is a simple image of a sullen Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) at a seaside club seated by a mirror, but the reflection in the glass is not her own. While this cinematic technique has been employed in numerous horror films, the shot is not intended to be a standard jump scare. In Diop’s skilled hands it is something more nuanced and powerful. It captures the sadness and despair that is ravishing a generation.
Set in Dakar, Senegal, Diop presents a society where poverty is pushing many young men to the brink. One such individual is Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), Ada’s true love, who is tired of his boss not paying him and his co-workers for their hard work. Hearing tales of better job opportunities in Europe, Souleiman and his friends head out to sea without even saying goodbye.
Though her family has arranged for her to marry the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla), Souleiman’s abrupt decision is no less devastating to Ada. Despite her friends encouraging her to embrace the financial benefits of life with Omar, Ada cannot get Souleiman off her mind. A task that becomes increasingly difficult when strange things begin to occur, including someone setting fire to Ada and Omar’s bed on their wedding night.
As the police investigate the peculiar events, and Souleiman’s rumoured connection, Atlantics reveals itself to be a mystery unlike no other.
The fact that Diop’s film refuses to be placed in one specific box is part of its appeal. The film is both a touching romance and a captivating mystery. It is grounded in real world struggle while wrapping itself within the comforting warmth of the fantastical. However, with all of these various elements at play, Atlantics still manages to offer a searing commentary on the wealth gap, female sexuality and the impact of capitalist corruption on a generation of men.
Just as Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite offered a captivating look at the ways the rich take advantage of the poor, Atlantics echoes tight financial noose that the poor are often placed in. Using the sea as a metaphor for hope and misery, as many men take to the sea and never return, Diop’s film is both beautiful and chilling. The film gives a unique perspective to the refugee crisis, one that focuses on the emotional weight those left behind must carry. While this theme flows throughout the film, Atlantics keeps it primary focus on Ada’s evolution.
Anchored by Mame Bineta Sane’s brilliant performance, Ada’s transition to a passionate and independent woman is a sight to behold. Similar to the waves of colour that fill the sky and the clubs, Ada’s layers of emotions feel palpable.
A hypnotic and richly constructed love story, Atlantics is a stunning debut that defies convention in the best possible way.