Set in the Senegalese city of Dakar, which juts out from Africa into the Atlantic Ocean, Atlantics features numerous shots of that vast expanse of water. What’s interesting is how varied those images are. At times, especially at sunset, the Atlantic is dazzling and beneficent. In the dark of night, however, the undulating waves seem malevolent, even demonic. It’s fitting for a movie that sets out to capture both the beauty and injustice of this place.
One of the first people we meet is Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore), a construction laborer who hasn’t been paid in months, despite the fact that the project he’s working on—a futuristic office tower—represents a giant display of wealth. Desperate, Souleiman and a number of coworkers board a boat one night and set off to sea in search of work elsewhere, leaving behind the young woman he loves, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), to proceed with her arranged marriage to another man.
As the feature directing debut of Mati Diop (she wrote the screenplay with Olivier Demangel), Atlantics shows an astonishing command of craft. The early, establishing shots of Souleiman and others laboring against massive backdrops are superbly composed, depicting these men as living cogs in a giant commercial machine. At another point, a distraught Ada sits in a nightclub, where disco lights mockingly cast pinpoints of color across her face, teasing her with the freedom she’ll soon lose. (The cinematographer, Claire Mathon, also shot 2019’s exquisite Portrait of a Lady on Fire.) And then there is the intricate sound design, especially during a ceremonial march that is part of Ada’s wedding. As the older women offer a traditional chant, Fatima Al Qadiri’s score intrudes upon their voices, distinguishing Ada’s inner state from the societal expectations she’s being forced to meet.
This would all be compelling enough, but Atlantics takes a turn about a third of the way in that elevates the movie into a different, more tantalizing realm. I won’t give anything away, except to say that the shift is connected to those ocean views. There are unknown, uncontrollable, and perhaps even metaphysical forces at work in that water. Watching Atlantics harness them in the name of justice is a spooky thrill.