Atlantique – "We were cast into the depths"


Camila Hernández reviews Mati Diop's Senegalese Social Realist film with a supernatural twist

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By Camila Hernandez

Throughout Atlantique (2019), we strain to see the hushed sun, yet the ocean is eternal, harsh, waves crashing upon the shore, lonely in their immortality – for they will exist long after we return to dust.

Looming towers, unsettled dues, vanished beloveds, and an undesired union ignite the supernatural happenings behind this layered tale of possession and reconciliation. French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop’s feature directorial debut slowly develops – bleeds, almost – like a polaroid still, from a social realist setting to a haunting and liminal drama by way of a fragmented narrative with characters portrayed by largely non-professional Senegalese actors. The niece of Djibril Diop Mambéty, the mind behind 1974’s infectious Touki Bouki, Diop’s Atlantique is expertly crafted both aesthetically and narratively. Through their participation with the story, its characters, and its landscape, the audience obliquely learns about the plight of the migrants, exploitation of workers, third-world inequalities, and the indignities that women are subjected to, in a much more indelible way than if these notions were presented to them overtly.

In Senegal's capital Dakar, a bustling city of exploding wealth and class division, a futuristic-looking tower is on the verge of opening, yet many of its poor construction workers have not been paid. Spurred by the hope of a better life in Europe, a group of the men including Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) set out on the sea to Spain. He leaves his young lover Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) behind – without telling her – though she's committed to the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla). In fact, after Souleiman leaves, she indeed does wed Omar, but on their special day his bed catches fire in a suspected arson. As Ada wonders if she is with the right man, the rich but cold Omar, more mysterious events befall her girlfriends and others she knows, prompting an investigation. Some fear it is a haunting of sorts, the spirits of the men who went out to sea, making their presence known.

In this way, Atlantique is a tragic and all too familiar tale about the plight of refugees, – and yet it isn’t. Diop turns down the tragic notes and finds a new story in the hollow aftermath of loss. She metaphorically and literally conjures the spirits that are left behind and has them possess the thoughts and bodies of the living. It becomes a ghost story of sorts, showing the spirits as refugees from their bodies lost at sea. They have come back to shore to carry out some final business, including recovering the money owed to them, and in the case of Souleimane and Ada, consummating their love.

The film’s pulse is both leisurely and frantic; at night, the camera lingers, and during the day, it shudders. Dakar becomes a ghost town for a ghost story, masonry going up and coming down. Long shots of the ocean continually recur like glyphs between book chapters yet each time subtly different – menacing, comforting, glowing, promising freedom and mourning death all at once. Kuwaiti musician Fatima Al Qadiri’s synth score is guttural, with an elegiac nature carried within each beat, anguish hanging on every breath as the spirits of Dakar seek the autonomy and peace they’ve been unjustly denied.

Ultimately, it seems fitting that we find the ocean at the centre of this story – punctuating its trajectory in still-frames – because Diop’s narrative is crafted as if it had been moulded from the waves themselves. There is that winding, breathing flow that subverts the linear and instead meanders between different realms of creation; soft around the edges, it would rather creep than jump, or crawl between the cracks than break through.