Love and death, those eternal bedfellows, persist in director/co-writer Mati Diop’s ATLANTICS. A tale told with an invigorating blend of warmth and melancholy that feels like tale passed down through generations. Make no mistake, Diop, along with co-writer Olivier Demangel have a modern story on their hands, but like the best of them, timeless themes such as love, death, the afterlife, and inequality seep through the reels resulting in a film that brims with unique energy.
Indeed, the fates of Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) and Solueiman (Traore) seem destined for some kind of glory. Two young adults growing up in the poorer parts of the Senegalese neighborhood of Dakar, Ada and Solueiman are destined lovers with the odds against them. While Solueiman and his fellow workers toil day in and day out at the construction site of an upcoming monolithic tower with no sign of pay in the last three months, Ada herself is stuck in a forced marriage to a wealthy suitor (Babacar Sylla) who will more than likely whisk her away from her downtrodden situation to a life of meaningless luxury. Despite these obstacles, the love between these Ada and Solueiman burn bright, their looks into one another’s eyes yearning for a chance to escape their downtrodden plights together. But in an attempt to find more work in Spain, Souleiman and his fellow workers take to the risky seas and all Ada can do is wait for her lover to return. And Solueiman does return, supported by a force of love and retribution that sets off a series of strange events and possessions that takes hold over everyone in Dakar.
Merging harsh reality with supernatural-tinged fantasy and shaking it together to create what is at its core, a love story, Diop and co. find a sad magic in the harsh realities for the people of Dakar. Anchored by a stellar central performance from Sane, whose quiet demeanor masks a tragic nearly desperate longing, the central romance keeps ATLANTICS chugging. While Traore’s Souleiman isn’t in the picture for too long (at least physically speaking), the character remains a prevalent and driving force throughout, acting as both returning lover and fiery savior for the have-nots. Even in his brief screen time, Traore and Sane share a quiet fiery energy of destined lovers whose looks at one another hold just as much power as the sweet and delicate words they share. Simply put, the relationship (and the film as a whole) feels authentic, a theme that permeates in much of the other lived in supporting characters, ranging from Ada’s supportive friends to even the random detective played with entrancing seriousness by Amadou Mbow. While the detective character felt rather unnecessary and underwritten, Mbow nevertheless imbues his character with unspoken drive and doubt that enlivens a stock character.
Assisting in the authenticity of the film is the cinematography by Claire Mathon, which transforms a film from gritty down-to-earth aesthetics into a much more dreamy supernatural tale as the film begins to thrive in its night scenes drenched in the lights of streetlights, the blue of the moon and the romantic clusters of a strobe-filled bar. As a result, one can feel the wind-blown beaches, the salt and sweat in the air and in the bars making one an involved witness to Diop and Demangel’s story that more or less naturally transforms from a quiet romance to understated (if effective) horror to even a crime procedural. Indeed, while the film’s writing can sometimes feel a little too sparse (especially in regards to the aforementioned detective), ATLANTICS displays maturity into its deft handling of the harsh plight of underprivileged of Dakar in addition to the magic that transpires out of pure love.
By the time the film hits its quietly wrenching finale, ATLANTICS fails to immediately exits one’s mind, lasting like a kind of vague dream, one where moments and feeling last long after the details fade.