Atlantics (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A calm but powerful debut work to remember

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“Atlantics”, which was recently selected as the Senegalese entry for the Best International Feature Film Oscar at the 92nd Academy Awards, reminds me of that famous quote from Gabriel García Márquez: “If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you.” While you may be caught off guard by what occurs in the middle of its story, the movie will absolutely make you believe what is going on the screen via its vividly realistic mood and details to be appreciated, and its calm but undeniably powerful finale will certainly touch you a lot.

After the opening scene showing a group of construction site workers quite angry about their overdue wage, the movie, which is set in a suburb of Dakar that lies along the Atlantic coast, focuses on the romantic relationship between one of these workers, named Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), and a young woman named Ada (Mame Bineta Sane). Considering her conservative Muslim background as well as the upcoming wedding between her and some wealthy business man, Ada certainly has to be very discreet about her romantic relationship with Souleiman, but she cannot help but feel happy while being with him, so she sneaks out of her house during one evening for going to a bar where she and Souleiman often hang around with other young people around their age.

However, when she arrives at the bar, she is belatedly informed that Souleiman and many other young men, who all have been quite desperate as they have not got paid at that construction site, left the town by a boat which may take them to Spain. As feeling more of the absence of their boyfriends, Ada and other young women at the bar slowly fall into quiet melancholy, and their loneliness is further accentuated by the constant sound of wind and waves under the night sky.

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During next several days, Ada remains quietly heartbroken while not telling anything to her parents, and then there comes the day of her wedding. While everyone around her congratulates her for this important event which will surely improve her life in more than one aspects, Ada still remains sad and depressed as worrying more about whether Souleiman is all right now, and only Dior (Nicole Sougou), the owner of the bar who is also Ada’s best friend, provides her some compassion coupled with pragmatism. After all, she is envied by many of her friends as becoming the wife of a rich man, and, at least, that is a bit better than being stuck with her family in their shabby residence.

However, something strange subsequently occurs, and it seems highly possible to many people including a detective investigating the incident that Souleiman somehow returns. Not so surprisingly, the detective comes to suspect that Ada is involved with the incident, and Ada, who insists that she does not know anything about her lover’s whereabouts, has to endure the suspicions from not only her in-laws but also her parents, who later have her go through a humiliating clinical process at a hospital just for confirming her virginity to their in-laws.

And then the screenplay by director Mati Diop and her co-writer Olivier Demangel takes an unexpected plot turn. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you instead on how the movie effortlessly generates a series of seemingly plain but undeniably uncanny moments, and I must say that I was quite surprised during one memorable scene where a certain supporting character suddenly finds himself facing the grave consequence of his greed and selfishness.

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In the meantime, there comes a mysterious text message for Ada, and that makes her more agitated and conflicted than before. While nothing seems certain to her now, her love toward Souleiman looks like the only thing she can hold onto, and that eventually prompts her to become a little more active than before. Her eventual big decision may not look that wise at first, but the movie empathizes with her feelings behind that decision, and, thanks to Diop’s subtle but sensitive direction, we also come to understand Ada as sensing more of that quiet romantic passion churning inside her.

Around that narrative point, you may easily guess in advance where the story is heading, but the movie still sticks to its calm, restrained approach, and then it surprises us again during the finale, which delivers not only a spooky moment of social/poetic justice but also a haunting moment of bittersweet romance. While Mame Bineta Sane is commendable in her unadorned natural performance which gradually takes the center of the story, the other main cast members including Amadou Mbow, Nicole Sougou, Aminata Kane, and Ibrahima Traoré are also convincing in their respective supporting roles, and Sougou is particularly fine as Ada’s no-nonsense friend.

“Atlantics” is the first feature film directed by Diop, who is the niece of prominent Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty and has also been known for acting in several notable films including Claire Denis’s “35 Shots of Rum” (2008). When the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in this year, Diop made history as becoming the first black woman to direct a film featured In Competition at the festival, and she also won the Grand Prix, which she totally deserved considering her skillful and confident handling of story, mood, and performance in the film. In short, the movie is one of the most memorable works of this year, and it will probably be regarded as the stunning start for another good filmmaker of our time.

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