In her first movie, Mati Diop shows how good she is translating a moving tale to the big screen and providing characters portrayed in stark reality that are so relatable that we sometimes see ourselves in them.
Atlantics won the Grand Prix award and it is well-deserved. It is a story that does away with the usual finesse of makeup. You see the characters just as they are; everyday people who are impoverished. This is filmmaking at its best and Mati Diop dishes it out like the professional that she is.
Centering around a young girl called Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), the film is an exploration of the kind of love that transcends worlds, pure and unstoppable even in the face the most insurmountable odds.
Ada is betrothed to the rich Omar (Babacar Sylla) but is actually in love with Suleiman (Ibrahim Traore). Against the wishes of her family and her childhood friend Mariama, she continues to see Suleiman, sneaking out at night to their usual place of convergence. Theirs is a union that is forbidden and Mariama is quick to remind Ada that Suleiman has nothing to offer and that her association with the girls who frequent the club at night (seen as prostitutes) is a bad influence on her.
Ada chooses to ignore everything that stands between her and her true love. Suleiman is the one for her and no one can change that.
She slips out of her house on the night before she is to marry Omar to the club by the beach (the meeting place with Suleiman) and is shocked to learn that he and his friends have hopped on a boat en route to Spain. The news stuns Ada and she barely holds on reality.
When a mysterious fire guts part of Omar’s house during the marriage ceremony, the police become involved in a case that sees them name the absent Suleiman as the prime suspect and Ada as his accomplice. It’s an absurd notion to the young girl who hasn’t been herself since her lover disappeared.
Things take an unexpectedly bizarre and supernatural turn when the girlfriends of the boys who went away begin to find themselves being ‘taken over’ by forces that they cannot begin to comprehend. Soon Ada realizes that the love she has cherished all this time is actually calling to her from a world that she cannot see.
Atlantics is beautifully shot and every scene is so natural that it feels like an African documentary. The poor settlement offers an amazing backdrop to a story that highlights the disparity between the rich and the poor and the lead actress accurately channels the quiet but powerful Ada, a girl who doesn’t speak much but whose will is indomitable.
The ocean plays an important role in the tale as it is ever-present in most of the major events, hence the title ‘Atlantics’ (which I believe is a subtle reference to the Senegalese people as the Atlantic Ocean runs through the geographical territory).
There is a sudden shift in the tone of the film when it goes into supernatural territory and the eerie feeling it brings could come as disconcerting at times.
The character of Suleiman is seen for a very short time but his impact reverberates throughout the movie. His presence is there, ever watchful and his shadow ever looming.
Netflix’s Atlantics is definitely one of the most remarkable movies to come out of the African continent this year and we hope to see more female directors helming such touching stories.