Mati Diop's feature debut Atlantics feels like the work of an experienced master
Ada (Mama Bineta Sane), the young Senegalese protagonist of Mati Diop’s gorgeous Atlantics, is deeply in love with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a construction worker on the new local monstrosity, the Muejiza Tower. But Souleiman and his work comrades are owed four months’ wages, and mutinously abandon Senegal to sail – fatally – to Spain. Ada, meanwhile, is heading to a metaphorical death of her own: a loveless marriage with the Muejiza’s materialistic owner, Omar (Babacar Sylla). Their wedding party is halted, however, when the absence of Souleiman and the workers manifests itself in an unexpectedly physical, haunting way.
If that sounds cryptic, it’s only to avoid over-explaining the movie’s quiet surprises. In any case, it’s the stunning simplicity with which the film delivers its ultimate belief – love and solidarity are stronger than death – that leaves a mark. As if to announce herself as a world-class talent, from the first scene of Diop’s debut (the first frame, even), she displays a lightness of touch in the face of immense concepts like gentrification and romance, and an ability to compress worlds of passion and frustration into single images.
Though Diop’s Senegal is its own world, lived-in but not exhaustively specific, the language of the movie is universal. We can’t all know Souleiman and his comrades’ struggle in the face of red tape, even when Diop urges us to look closer. But we do understand the empty space that an absent lover leaves behind, or the feeling of looking out to the open ocean – an image to which Diop returns many times in the film – and seeing a world to be explored, or at least a place better than where we are.
Maybe that movie-ness explains why Netflix are inexplicably distributing it – no offence to them, but this is above and beyond anything else they’ve ever released.
Atlantics had its UK premiere at London Film Festival, and is released on Netflix on 29 Nov