Atlantics, the Senegalese submission for the Best International Feature Oscar, walks a thin tightrope as it balances two genres rather seamlessly. It serves as a romantic ghost story that provides commentary on class division, resulting in a poetic package crafted by writer/director Mati Diop.
Set in a suburb of Dakar, Atlantics feels as if it takes place in a ghost town. The decrepit buildings shown illustrate its disconnect from the tall, luxurious tower being owned by capitalists who haven’t paid the construction workers that are building it. One of them named Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) tries starting a relationship with Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) who’s set to marry a wealthy man. Once Souleiman leaves the country with his fellow workers, they go missing and Ada and her friends deal with strange occurrences that begin to take place.
The eerie hauntings mixed with the blissful romance between Ada and Souleiman are both well-characterized by the score from Fatima Al Qadiri. Even when it has a serene sound, the score still possesses a morbid undercurrent. Whether it’s a hissing sound or a faint moaning, a spectral undertone can be heard throughout to hint at the possibly ominous forces that haunt the women waiting for their loved ones to come home.
As the women await their return, they wait by the ocean which serves as a form of separation between them and the world beyond their rundown suburb. The masterful cinematography by Claire Mathon possesses a similarly blueish color scheme to capture a feeling of entrapment. After lensing Portrait of a Lady on Fire which captures the burning essence of passion, Mathon captures love’s colder notions as she films the empty beaches which Ada and her friends hang out in where only bright neon lights acting as small hopes that their loved ones will come back to them.
It is the cinematography and the musical composition that tell the story so that the screenplay can avoid elucidation to explain how it’s about women attempting to reclaim their autonomy. Similarly, leading actress Mame Bineta Sane uses her bodily postures to show Ada’s transition from being timid to resilient.
Visually stunning, eerie, and strangely halcyon all at once, Atlantics is a one-of-a-kind storytelling feat. It’s also a marvelous directorial debut from Mati Diop who justly won the Grand Prix prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Even if its slow pacing may make it hard for some to get invested, it’s still impossible for your eyes and ears to drift away since it’s quite a sensory experience that may linger on you by the time it’s over. I know it still hasn’t left my mind.