Director Mati Diop’s hybrid mystery, horror, and magical realism love story Atlantics won this year’s Grand Prix at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Diop is the first black woman to direct a film featured in competition at Cannes. That she won is no small feat of brilliance.
Showing at the 57th New York Film Festival on Wednesday, October 9 and at Alice Tully Hall on Thursday, October 10, the film is deserving of its win and is a must-see, especially if you would enjoy a unique, stunning tale about justice delivered from the most unlikely of sources.
With a screenplay by Diop and Olivier Demangei and cinematography by Claire Mathon, the film melds the very real circumstances of a developer’s greed and the enforced poverty of exploited workers with a supernatural revenge that is both terrifying and poignant.
Poverty and slave wages are the portion of the lower classes of Dakar, Senegal, who may be easily bullied since there is no union to protect them. This backdrop to Diop’s fable immediately hooks us and allows us to identify the story’s circumstances with ones current in many developing nations – as well as developed democracies.
The film opens as Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) and his friends finish construction for the day in less than amiable working conditions, with long hours in the dust and hot sun. When they are told by the foreman that they cannot pick up their paychecks because the checks are not yet ready, Souleiman and his friends have little recourse except to mildly protest that they have been waiting for three months to be paid and their families are in great want.
Not even meeting with his new love Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) eases Souleiman’s unsettled spirit. After he professes his love for Ada, he gives her a necklace which she wears. They promise to meet later in the evening at Dior’s club on the beach. Dior (Nicole Sougou) is Ada’s friend and a liberated woman who has thrown off the old Muslim ways. She runs the club, serves alcohol, plays dance music, and enjoys the independent life she has made for herself.
By contrast, Ada is committed to an arranged Muslim marriage to Omar, who is wealthy and enjoys his male privilege. Ada’s mother encourages Ada to be thrilled about the marriage because they are lower middle class and her enviable future with Omar promises every comfort. Her mother, caught up in the ancient mores, cannot understand why Ada seems unhappy with Omar.
When Ada sneaks out to meet Souleiman, joined by her other friends who are meeting their boyfriends at Dior’s club, they are dressed like experienced clubbers, the antitheses of proper Muslim women. Seeing them out and about, a friend of Ada’s remarks that bad will come to her for hanging out with women who are little better than whores. Diop reveals Ada’s struggle between the old mores and the Westernized ones with clarity and strength.
At the club Dior tells Ada and her friends that the boys have left on a boat for Spain. They are looking for work that will pay so they can bring back money to support their families. Ada is devastated because in the following days she will be married to Omar, and she had wanted to be with Souleiman perhaps one last time.
Thus begins a harrowing and ethereal series of events. Ada’s and Omar’s wedding bed ignites in flames inexplicably on their wedding day/night. Because he is a person of wealth and power, Omar and his family call in police inspectors. Issa (Amadou Mbowin) in particular believes that Ada may be responsible because she may love another and is surreptitiously protesting the marriage. Omar’s parents subject Ada to a grueling virginity test to determine if she has been with someone else and whether either she or her lover burned the bed. Meanwhile, Ada secretly believes that Souleiman in fact returned, was at the wedding, and set the bed on fire to signal his protest of her marriage.
But this cannot be accurate. Souleiman and the other men have never returned from their voyage to Spain. And Ada has a vision/dream showing that the boat sank and all drowned. For his part, Issa suspects that the men have not returned publicly, but may have come back and are in hiding.
Ada shifts from hope to desolation and back again. The hope in believing Souleiman is alive drives her to take a stand against her mother and the restrictive Muslim patriarchy that Omar represents. Telling Omar she doesn’t love him, she refuses to live with him. Omar lets her go; there are no shortage of women he can entice with his money.
Mysterious events launch into the supernatural, which Diop and her cinematographer eerily configures with lighting, music, night settings, and a rapid series of engaging shots. The film also keeps the audience entranced with suggestions of the poetic beauty of the sunsets and surrealistic ocean cinematography, manifesting symbolically what is happening to the community and the men who have or haven’t returned to their wives and girlfriends.
Also, the dramatic music threads the themes of lost love, hope, and karma in the wistful ethereal atmosphere, making the shift into supernatural circumstances logical.
A plague overtakes the wives and girlfriends of the missing men, and we don’t understand this supernatural unraveling until the climax, when justice prevails. Finally, Souleiman returns to consummate the beauty of his love with Ada in a memorable scene shot in a balanced sequence that is graceful, surreal, poetic, and profound.
Atlantics is a terrific film in all its aspects, from performances to cinematography to music. You can find it at the 57th New York Film Festival in the “Main Slate” section at their website.