2019 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: To call “Atlantics” a supernatural drama is to do it a severe injustice. Yes, there is a spectral element here, but filmmaker Mati Diop is thinking far more about ideas than ghosts. With her feature debut, Diop explores Senegalese issues, while still telling a story that anyone can grab on too. She’s effectively able to convey what’s on her mind without ever being preachy. This movie is subtle, almost to a fault. However, it never goes over that line, which is why audiences at the Cannes Film Festival fell for it. Now, the same is true at the New York Film Festival.
“Atlantics” is an alluringly mysterious story, one that rewards patience. It takes its time unfolding, utilizing its 104-minute running time to slowly show all of its cards. When it does, you feel its full weight. That can create a bit of hump to get over in the middle of the flick, but once that’s overcome, it’s very smooth sailing, under the assured direction that Diop exhibits.
Set in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, a construction site for a high rise building is teeming with tension. The workers haven’t been paid for months, and are near a state of revolt. Led by Suleiman (Ibrahima Traore), a group opts to take to the sea, sailing to France in the hopes of better paying jobs. Suleiman is forced to part ways with his love Ada (Mame Bineta Sane). Ada wants to be with Suleiman, but she is about to marry another man in Omar (Babacar Sylla), setting herself up for a life of luxury. The men leave right as her marriage takes place, which weighs on Ada. When her marital bed is set on fire, Suleiman is suspected. However, despite being seen in town, he and the men are supposedly lost at sea.
As the investigation into the arson continues, more and more signs point to Suleiman, though Ada sees something much more spectral at hand. The less one knows about the third act of “Atlantics,” the better, but it’s an ending that sneaks up on you. Almost until the last minute, Diop keeps you guessing about how things will wrap up.
“Atlantics” features realistic performances all around, investing the audience in this deeply personal tale. Two in particular stand out. Mame Bineta Sane is playing a deeply relatable and conflicted character, something she puts across with ease. Sane makes it easy to identify with Ada. Likewise, Ibrahima Traore manages to showcase a lot without displaying too much overt emotion or information. It comes out slowly, teasing the depth of the story at hand.
Mati Diop is a filmmaker with a very bright future, that’s for sure. Bathed in color by cinematographer Claire Mathon and soaked in the mood of its protagonist, this is a movie that suggests Diop has a lot to say. Her direction is more progressed than her screenplay, co-written by Olivier Demangel, but both elements are soulfully executed. Really the only detracting element here is the procedural aspect. Until that ties in more fully at the end, it’s largely a let down from the tone of the rest of the film.
From Cannes to NYFF, “Atlantics” has amassed hardcore fandom, and rightly so. Diop’s talents are on display for all to see. Her next work may well be a masterpiece. Already Senegal’s official Oscar submission for Best International Feature, she could quickly become an Academy Award nominee. If so, it would be well deserved. This film hits Netflix next month, so keep an eye out for it!