Starved for work after the depletion of Senegal’s local fishing industry, thousands of young men take to the sea every year aboard pirogues, or small boats, fleeing their country for Spain. Those who have emigrated, died, or been incarcerated as part of the “pirogue phenomenon”—referred to colloquially as “Barcelona or death” in Senegalese communities—are the ghosts that haunt Atlantics. The forms those spirits take in the film represent just some of what’s so extraordinary about Mati Diop’s first feature as a director, a work of disparate influences and genres that pulses on its own oblique wavelength.
Atlantics begins in searing sunlight with a group of young men working construction on a massive new complex in Dakar. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) reveals himself to be a sort of leader of the crew, entering the management office and demanding four months of back pay. The boss, he’s told, is away and hasn’t left any money, and the workers pile in the flatbed of a truck and go home. The matter-of-fact, documentary style of this opening changes subtly as the truck pulls away, revealing the huge glass structure the men are working on: a skyscraper that looks like a cross between London’s cigar-shaped Gherkin and a spaceship. The building not only mars the landscape, but feels like it’s been dropped in from another world.
Diop, who began telling this story in the 2009 short Atlantiques, surely has politics on her mind, but her feature approaches its subject in manners both mystical and holistic. The film follows Souleiman home and into the arms of Ada (Mama Sane), a 17-year-old girl betrothed to a rich man named Omar (Babacar Sylla). They kiss discretely in an unadorned concrete structure alongside a beach and promise to meet later in the night, but after Ada puts on her nightlife clothing and sneaks out her bedroom window, she arrives at the local bar to find it full of lonely women. They’ve all been abandoned as their boyfriends have set sail. An unforgettable tableau arranges them on the steps of the bar, another windowless concrete building that gestures to the porousness of time and genre comes to define Atlantics.
Inside is often also outside, as the interior spaces often lack windows, exposed to the elements and the fire and water the film frequently refers to converge with every blazing purple-orange sunset over the ocean. As shot by Claire Mathon, Dakar is cloaked in a haze of dust only pierced by those sunsets, which take on an ominous portent as the film continues. The action becomes increasingly tethered to Ada, who comes to question her decision to marry the wealthy but insensitive Omar. A new narrative strand is sparked on Ada’s wedding night, when a party at her home is interrupted by a sudden fire that shreds a hole in the middle of her marital bed. (The giant white bed is strikingly similar to the one in the finale of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Ada’s friends, some of them modest and in headscarves and others in tight dresses and heavy makeup, are alarmed by a witness claiming that Souleiman has returned and may have started the fire. Issa (Amadou Mbow), a young detective, eagerly takes the case, but he’s often waylaid by sickness, suddenly sweaty and short of breath.
Many of these story developments are abrupt, bookmarked by shots of drifting curtains or characters bolting awake from a sleep. Diop’s rhythms are elliptical enough that her film sometimes seems to unfold from within a dream, but she’s an outstanding director of actors, who unearth the political dimensions of the film with sensitive depictions of internal anguish. Atlantics transitions into oblique genre fare in a manner reminiscent of Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, with electronic musician Fatima Al Qadiri’s multifaceted score adding ghostly strings and pop guitar riffs over spiritual, syncopated Middle Eastern arrangements. Despite its wild narrative leaps, the film is undergirded with a holistic mix of serenity and trauma that recalls Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour.
In the face of increased scrutiny, Ada grows stronger and more diffident as both her secular and religious friends grow sick like Issa. All these characters find redemption through a form of repossession that would be a shame to spoil, but it’s safe to say that it’s a brilliant convergence of Diop’s concerns: How the living cope with the dead, how the rich lay waste to the poor, and how opposing lifestyles and perspectives must reconcile, one way or another. In a sublime finale, Atlantics collapses any sense of boundaries, twisting a story of possession into one about memorial and reclamation. As Diop mourns Senegal’s lost men, she honors their grief and affords them tremendous power all at once.