Mati Diop, the first black woman to have a film in competition at Cannes, has brought her debut fiction feature, Atlantics. It’s a project with roots in a short documentary she made ten years ago, also called Atlantics, in which a young Senegalese man tells of setting out on a perilous journey to Spain only to be sent right back home again. Diop has been listening to countless similar stories ever since, and as she tells Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa, most of these men are “so obsessed with the idea of going to Spain, of no longer being in Senegal no matter what, of disappearing from its shores, that it was as if they weren’t there anymore; they were already somewhere else, gone. And as there were so many people going missing at sea, I started to look at the ocean differently. I basically started to see Dakar as a ghost town, and it was as if the ocean itself were sucking up these boys. It’s madness, but it’s part of my madness as a filmmaker.”
The skyline of the Dakar in her new film is dominated by a fictional, CGI-generated, futuristic tower being constructed by workers who haven’t been paid for months. Naturally, they, too, are scheming to make the illegal voyage to Spain. One of them is Suleiman (Ibrahima Traore), who’s fallen for Ada (Mame Sane), who’s engaged to Omar (Babacar Sylla), a wealthy man she doesn’t love. After Suleiman disappears, Ada and Omar’s marital bed goes up in flames, and a detective (Amadou Aam) who keeps conking out due to a mysterious disease, is brought in to investigate. And one night, it appears that Ada’s entourage of girlfriends may be possessed by the spirits of the missing construction workers.
Notebook editor Daniel Kasman grants that the plot “may sound complex, but in fact Diop is swimming easily among archetypes and conventions—traditional values vs. modern, the desire to stay home and the yearning the leave, religion and consumerism—and sometimes Atlantics feels like a short film well-elaborated. But in its modesty and its details it is sweet and exquisite.” The Telegraph’s Tim Robey admires the ways Diop slips “in and out of modes with a magician’s confidence, . . . weaving melodic lines around a richer array of characters than you first expect, and using the ocean’s insinuating roar for background orchestration.”
For Variety’s Jay Weissberg, now that we have such films about Senegalese men trekking across the Atlantic as Moussa Touré’s The Pirogue (2012), “it’s refreshing to focus on the women left behind, facing lives of painful emotional, not to mention financial, interruption. Diop and cowriter Olivier Demangel work in just enough of the country’s disparate hierarchies to give a greater sense of social context . . . A fine director of actors, Diop skillfully selected and guided her largely non-professional cast, drawing out believable three-dimensional performances graced by inner radiance.”
For the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd, though, “while the sometimes atmospheric nocturnal imagery recalls that of Claire Denis, who cast Diop in her great 35 Shots of Rum roughly a decade ago, the director hasn’t internalized her old collaborator’s elegant sense of rhythm.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Leslie Felperin, too, finds that many “ideas about class, post-imperialism, and spiritual values peek up out of the surface of the text, but they're not developed with much rigor compared to what Diop conjured with more intensity and less time in A Thousand Suns,” the forty-five-minute film Diop made in 2013, a portrait of Magaye Niang, the star of her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973). The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw will concede that Atlantics “may not be perfect,” but he’s taken in by its “seductive mystery.” And at RogerEbert.com, Barbara Scharres calls Atlantics “a ravishing film to experience, glowing in attenuated light, and rife with eerie, magical moments.”
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