Netflix has a ridiculous amount of content but it doesn’t mean it’s actually easy to find a movie that’s truly worth watching. I had heard about Atlantics when it won Cannes’ Grand Jury Prize back in 2019, which then got acquired by Netflix. It made news as it marked as the first movie directed by a Black woman featured in competition there, which is actually pretty sad that it took that long for that to happen.
The film takes place in a suburb of Dakar, Senegal, where a young female protagonist Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is betrothed to a wealthy man while she’s in love with another boy. That boy Souleiman (Traore) is one of the workers constructing a futuristic tower who had been working without pay for months. The group of boys are seen demanding to be paid, rightfully so, which fall on deaf ears on the tycoon financing the project. So the boys decide to leave for Spain across the North Atlantic ocean for a better future.
On the night of Ada’s wedding, her new husband Omar’s bed mysteriously catches fire and the rest of the film follows a detective, Issa (Amadou Mbow) who investigating the case. This film by French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop is brimming with enigma and there’s an aura of mystery that I find beguiling. It can be painfully slow yet hypnotic. The tone is atmospheric where the camera would often gaze at the ocean, but the sound of the waves is both soothing and alarming. Clearly there is something significant about the waters which is a huge part of the story.
I always appreciate films that take me to a place I’m not familiar with. Diop depicts Dakar with vivid realism, the scenes of day-to-day life has a touch of documentary vibe to it. I also enjoy that it shows young people having fun and goofing around amongst friends. Nicole Sougou as Ada’s best friend Dior is a memorable one, and you could say her scenes are the comic relief in the largely serious movie. While I knew there’s a supernatural bent to the film, the moment the spectral element shows up, I was quite taken aback. I’m not a horror fan so I’m glad the film isn’t reliant on cheap jump scares, but it’s definitely hair-raising.
At the core of Atlantics is a love story and the romance has a dreamy quality. As Ada waits for news from Suleiman and fears for his life on his arduous journey, her longing is palpable. I commend Diop for weaving multiple genres here… a romantic ghost story infused with an astute social commentary between the haves and the have-nots. The two young lovers are attractive, I was quite transfixed by the delicate and statuesque Sane who conveys so much with her eyes, and both she and Traore have matinee idol looks. Mbow has the most to do as the detective and he seems like an experienced actor despite this being his first acting role.
Overall this is an impressive writing & directing debut from Diop and it’s nice to see a strong force of female creativity behind the camera. Diop collaborates with a female DP Claire Mathon (who also worked on Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and composer Fatima Al Qadiri that contributes to bringing this exquisite work to life. Atlantics is a gorgeous, poetic, mesmerizing film that really lingers long after the end credits. I’m glad the film is on Netflix so I can easily rewatch it soon. This was Senegalese’s entry for Best International Feature at 2019 Oscars, bummer that it didn’t make the final five.
I sure hope Diop would continue to make more films and I also look forward to seeing the talented actors in more projects in the future. I can’t recommend this enough, so add this to your watch-list if you haven’t already.