Atlantics review – wistfully original romance

The debut film from writer-director Mati Diop is a deeply felt teenage romance set in Dakar with lots of surprises

A haunting and alien atmosphere is always present in Atlantics, the fiercely original debut film from actor turned writer-director Mati Diop. What begins as a deeply felt teenage romance set in an unfair and unforgiving modern Senegal soon reveals itself to be something entirely different. Much of what makes Atlantics special, however, stems from its genre-shifting surprises, and to say more would feel like a betrayal of those intentions.

Best to call this a contemporary drama with gothic sensibilities – one that announces itself as something otherworldly early on, as Diop’s camera tracks a group of young men returning to the Senegalese capital in the back of a truck. Having been refused their wages from a recent labouring job, we linger on the frustrated face of young Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) in a lengthy and mesmerising dialogue-free scene. His journey home is framed against the ocean – here a constant symbol of hope and also of cruel circumstance – and the mysterious and atmospheric combination of music (a brilliantly extraterrestrial score by Fatima Al Qadiri) and hazy visuals suggests a film that will not give over answers easily.

But Souleiman isn’t our main character: it’s his teenage girlfriend Ada (Mame Bineta Sane, wonderfully understated), who suddenly becomes the film’s focus when Souleiman is left with no choice but to board a boat with a group of other young men to find work across the sea in Spain. He never informs Ada of his intentions; their star-crossed romance is cut short by his sudden departure, and it’s here that Atlantics‘ sense of melancholy – Ada’s sense of loss – eases in and the movie is inflicted with a genuine heartache. She tries to move on, but struggles to adapt to a new life with Omar (Babacar Sylla), a wealthy man she is forced to marry at the advice of her friends. Who Omar is isn’t important; it is simply that he is not Souleiman.

Atlantics is a film about capitalism, migration, and globalism, but never a heavy-handed one. Now and again, Diop simply lets her camera sit on a wide shot of a skyscraper – the one Souleiman and the other young men helped to build – as it towers over the rest of the city as a symbol of all that is wrong, like something from a sci-fi dystopia – not entirely unlike the abandoned spacecraft that hovers over the slums in Neill Blomkamp’s South African-set District 9.

It’s Atlantics’ refusal to paint itself into one corner that serves as its biggest strength; it is rare to see a film that unravels so unexpectedly but so confidently, with no concern for convention. In lesser hands the blend of gothic romance, teen drama, sci-fi, and – later – police procedural might have fallen apart. But Diop manages to make these elements feel like a fluid whole. The story itself is occasionally thin and at points a lethargy sets in that won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes. But Atlantics ultimately emerges as that rare thing: a debut from a filmmaker whose voice already feels fully formed.

★★★★☆

By: Tom Barnard

Get Atlantics showtimes in London.

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