There are some films that fail to live up to their hype, and there are others whose hype, it seems, fails to live up to them. This is certainly true of Mati Diop’s remarkable directorial debut Atlantics, now showing at NYFF57. Atlantics has received exceptional praise out of Cannes and TIFF, but it’s far more interesting and varied than the responses would initially suggest. A magical realist love story (with ghosts), Atlantics folds in a sharp meditation on worker exploitation with a lyrical narrative of love, power, and physical possession.
The film opens with the construction of a massive tower block. The workers are furious because they haven’t been paid for three months, and learn that their boss has gone out of town without leaving them the money. Distressed and increasingly desperate, the men return to Dakar, where one of the leaders, Suleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), meets up with his girlfriend, Ada (Mama Sané). Ada is in love with Suleiman, despite being engaged to another, wealthier man approved by her parents and her more grasping and virtue-minded friends. Ada and Suleiman arrange to meet again that night, but when she arrives at the local bar by the sea, she learns that all the young men have gone off in a boat. They’re making for Spain, where they think they’ll be able to find jobs. The boat never arrives. As Ada and the other women left behind try to cope with their grief, and Ada’s impending marriage, they become entangled with hallucinations, apparitions, and a police investigation.
At its core, Atlantics is about transcendental love. Ada mourns for Suleiman’s loss and her marriage to a man she does not love, but she’s caught between the dictates of her society (and her need to be financially supported) and the dangers that life “outside” poses. In a pivotal scene, one of her friends explains that she has to make a choice, to accept her new husband and the wealth and security he offers, or leave him, be ostracized by her family, and have to make her way on her own. Atlantics primarily focalizes itself through Ada, presenting the perspective of t the women left behind in a society and culture that treats them as modes of exchange.
Diop has been praised as a director to watch, and Atlantics fully justifies that—her eye for detail within the urban landscape is complex. The imagery buoys the film, with long passages that emphasize ocean waves and the beauty of the water in contrast to the warren-like appearance of Dakar’s streets, buildings, and apartment blocks. The horror elements are subdued, introduced slowly over the course of the film, and provide moments of levity as well as inspiring fear. Diop’s camera gradually reveals what is happening, and why, as the film’s disparate elements all ultimately unite to form a haunting whole.
This is neither an art film nor an “elevated” horror film; it utilizes ghosts and possession as the spirits of vengeance against exploitative bosses, highlighting the desperation of workers let down by the system. Suleiman has comparatively little screen time, but his presence dominates Atlantics as it dominates Ada’s life, when she becomes increasingly convinced that he is either still alive, or that he’s haunting her. The film also allows space for Ada’s behavior to be questioned, interrogating the relationship between society, religion, and capitalism with simple, evocative images and subdued performances from its leads.
For a film about death and exploitation, Atlantics is also a remarkably beautiful, hopeful one, a narrative of rebirth and transcendence that permits its female characters a flexibility and nuance we don’t always see in depictions of hierarchical and patriarchal societies. Listen to the hype and see it, but don’t believe everything you see. Atlantics is so much more than what meets the eye.