When I think about the transportive potential of cinema, foreign-language films truly fit the bill as experiences that lift you to faraway lands. It’s always eye-opening to be strapped to someone else’s perspective, privy to the motions and dramas of their story, beholden to the director’s vision that is untainted by the tropes that we’ve grown weary of in English-language cinema. Done correctly, it can forge a connection between two lives (that of the viewer and the viewed) very separate in their fortunes and culture. 2019’s Atlantics (directed by newcomer Mati Diop) is one such marvellous display of this in action. Set in modern-day Senegal in the capital of Dakar, it tells the tale of young lovers Ada and Souleiman, their romance thrown into turmoil by circumstances and forces far larger than them. I think what endears me so much to the film in the first instance is on a purely aesthetic level, seeing the day to day existence of citizens of a country that I haven’t much thought about rendered in such intimate detail.
The film sets out with shots of a construction site, with workers toiling away in brutal heat, suffocating under a blanket of smog. Hungry-looking cattle roam between the piles of building materials. A bleached sign on the site signals its objective: the Muejiza Tower. It then cuts to the porta-cabin office, as the builders are disgruntled that their pay has been withheld for the fourth month in a row, with the project’s financier Mr N’Diaye skirting his responsibilities as an employer. We then follow the handsome Souleiman as he is carted home on the back of a truck, the near-complete tower a stark metaphor for the vast, unassailable inequality that shapes the course of his life. As he looks out to the ocean, we are invited to feel the same sense of possibility that he feels as he imagines what life could be beyond.
On the other side of Dakar is Ada, a young woman eager to resist the path chosen for her, pushing back against the deterministic expectations of others. Her marriage has been arranged for her, her fiancée the wealthy Omar. Ada’s heart lies with Souleiman however, and although her family would never allow for it she longs to be with him instead. It’s a story most of us have heard before, but it begins to diverge when Souleiman decides to embark on a voyage by sea in search of a better life for himself, never returning and leaving Ada longing for his presence and information on his whereabouts.
The story takes a supernatural turn when on the day of her wedding Omar is set ablaze on his own bed in a suspected arson attack, catapulting Ada into the heart of an investigation into what happened as unexplained events begin to unfold. Ada gets swept up in accusations and the judgement of others, and the audience too is left in the dark about who – or what – was behind Omar’s untimely death. Still, Ada is subjected to relentless shame, entangled in the false assumptions of others.
Backgrounding all of the drama is the majesty of the Atlantic Ocean, sometimes shown at night, sometimes shown at day, sometimes in a transitory state between the two as the sun glimmers on its surface. I could write a whole separate piece on the symbolism behind it but in sum I feel this film captures in essence the vastness you feel as you stare out to endless sea, wondering if someone on the other side is doing the same thing. Despite Ada and Souleiman both being caught up in tides that neither of them can control, the message I took from this film is that solace can be found in the great expanse and the interplay between fate and free will – that some things are out of your hands and that this is something you must learn to accept.
In some ways the story that takes place could have happened anywhere at any time, but taking place in Dakar seems like a setting well-suited to exploring political themes of migration and classism as well as personal ones of grief and mysticism. I feel Africa is such a misunderstood continent, and cinema such as this can have a huge role to play as a bridge into changing people’s preconceived ideas. It’s genuinely refreshing to see a bold, cinematic leap forward sprouting from somewhere other than Hollywood, and for French-Senegalese director Diop it is a historic, deserved achievement to have been nominated for the Palme d’Or. If you’re in search of a movie that’s captivating, that doesn’t bow to expectations and which carries you somewhere else in a way only the best films can then this will make a perfect watch.
Words by Charlie Forbes