Atlantics: A Haunting Tale of Longing
Atlantics (French: Atlantique), Mati Diop’s mesmerizing debut feature, thrives on a sense of duality. Set in Dakar, a coastal city and capital of Senegal, the contrast between night and day is palpable — the sweltering heat that causes so much visible discomfort during the day transforms into something almost sensual as the sky darkens, the night bringing a sense of possibility that seems to slip away as the sun reemerges from beneath the sea. The film follows a group of Senegalese teenagers struggling with the difficult reality of life in their home country. Ada (Mama Sané) is a young woman straining against the confines of her culture; betrothed to a wealthy businessman, she prefers her semi-clandestine romance with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a construction worker despondent over his dwindling opportunities to make a living. The young lovers are separated when Souleiman and his fellow workers decide one night to sail to Barcelona in search of better fortunes after failing to extract from their employer the payment they were owed for months of labor. Without the boys, Ada and her cohort of girlfriends soldier on, but the escape of those sultry nights is all but gone. Ada is left to cope with the increasing pressure of the arranged marriage as well as a dogged detective (Amadou Mbow) investigating a mysterious string of crimes, all the while clinging to the hope that Souleiman might yet return. To say much more would be to deprive one of the pleasures of a film that becomes something much more than it initially seems. Working with mostly non-actors, Diop (best known as the lead of Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum) crafts a haunting portrait of what she calls “a love frustrated by injustice, stolen by the ocean,” utilizing Fatima Al Qadiri’s electronic score and gorgeous cinematography by Claire Mathon (who also beautifully shot this year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire) to create a seemingly bifurcated cinematic world. As we follow characters through their daily routines, harsh sunlight beats down on them, mirroring the oppression they feel as they chafe against their societal confines; the camera lingers on sweat, sticky and uncomfortable, the inability to stay cool yet another obstacle to overcome. But cut to the image of the sun, descending majestically yet ominously into the Atlantic, and a change takes place. The world becomes a melange of blues and greens, the score transforms into something more ethereal, more spectral, and for a short while we are submerged into a dreamlike place where the boundary between the natural and supernatural becomes remarkably thin — until a jarring cut brings us back to the reality of day. Though the narrative served by these techniques isn’t resting on the most solid of foundations — coincidences start to pile up and internal logic may unravel if you pick at it — the performances are so convincing and the atmosphere so transporting that it really doesn’t matter. We’re swept along regardless, pushed through this ocean of time, sound, and color by waves of grief, hope, romance, and self-actualization. By the end, it becomes clear that though the night and its mysteries may be ephemeral, they serve as necessary fuel for the waking hours, providing strength through memory, desire, and the promise that they will always return.