Patrick Preziosi on Mati Diop’s ‘Atlantics’ (2019)
Throughout Mati Diop‘s feature debut Atlantics / Atlantique, the director frequently cuts away to shots of the Atlantic Ocean in which surf and sky fill the entire frame. Initially, these images seem to be featured to provide a sense of place, an establishment of physical location. But as Diop’s quietly unspooling ghost-story continues, a timeframe seems to be established by these moments. During the oppressive heat of the day, the screen is filled with a bleached out white, and as night approaches — and the spirits come out — the sun is captured in numerous states of its setting, a ticking clock counting down to the supernatural. This is just one of the many ways in which Diop crafts a narrative steeped in tradition, history and place, but makes it self-contained enough that it is anything but impenetrable. Once even just vaguely familiar with the most quotidian events of this coastal Dakar suburb, immersion into the film’s world is sealed.
That a sense of place is ingrained so deeply into the film’s fabric remains as impressive as it does for the fact that Atlantics is a chronicle of exile and liminality, of the daily tensions these characters experience that accumulates into a more universally recognisable marginalisation. There’s a palpable disconnect, of two distinct worlds failing to coexist, established right at the film’s opening, as Diop draws our attention to an ultra-modern skyscraper — looking like a just landed spacecraft — sitting on the tip of the Dakar coast, a structure that towers above everything else. In the shadow of that building, conflict is brewing, as construction workers demand the money that the company has withheld from them for three months. As the workers travel back to the village empty-handed, the camera settles itself upon one of the young men, Souleiman (credited only as Traore). Souleiman is in love with the equally young Ada (Mame Bineta Sane); she reciprocates, but is arranged to marry the absent-though-affluent Omar (Babacar Sylla), who spends 9 months out of the year working in Italy.
Initially glimpsed through a passing train by Souleiman, Ada becomes the film’s guiding narrative force, even if it does seem to be his story first. During this particular rendezvous with Ada, Soulemain is preoccupied by the sea, a moment of casual distraction that evolves into something more potent when later that night, the local girls learn the boys –– Soulemain included –– have set out on a rickety boat to Spain. In an eerily moving scene, Ada and her companions collectively learn of the journey undertaken, and all seem to be stricken with different reactions. Ada herself sits on a couch alone in the nightclub they frequent, green dots of lights dancing across her suggestively blank expression.
Ada isn’t given much opportunity to process her lover’s disappearance, as her doting family and peanut gallery of both secular and devoutly Muslim friends remind her of her approaching marriage (the former espouse Omar’s riches, the latter decry infidelity). On her wedding night, Ada hears talk of Soulemain’s return, and suddenly, her nuptial bed of virginal white bursts into flames. The fire department finds no evidence of arson, and a young detective plagued by fainting spells, Issa (Amadou Mbow), is assigned to the case.
Even with some subtle genre inflections, the story from then on still bends and flows to the rhythm of the village and its history, tradition and folklore. Namely, that of the djinn, spirits who populate Islamic mythology, and who are neither innately good nor evil. Similarly to Issa, some of the local girls, regardless of their religious adherence, suffer from symptoms of profuse sweating and fainting, which the viewer can then begin to recognise as telltale signs of djinn inhabitation. Soon, the eyeballs of the possessed turn a milky white, and they move with the collective determination of a pack of zombies. With remarkable self-assuredness, Diop offers a bevvy of scenes tracking the disarmingly unsettling trek of the possessed through the village, while still maintaining the film’s intoxicatingly placid pacing.
Diop’s directing style possesses the same kind of physical, interpersonal closeness as Claire Denis, though such intimacy in Atlantics isn’t observed externally, but rather expands from within the film itself. Although populated by Senegalese non-actors and steeped in folklore, Atlantics isn’t some ethnographic experiment or documentary hybrid. Much of the thrill of the film lies in how tightly woven it is, like the most affecting of fairytales or local legends, a cohesive collection of cinematic gestures that work in perfect lockstep with one another.
With such a superlative command of the material, Diop knows exactly when to cede appropriate and rewarding ground to her collaborators. Her performers –– especially Sane –– carry out the paradoxical task of fulfilling the most minute of activities with stirring grace in a story that otherwise plumbs spiritual depths. And at the strength of cinematographer Claire Mathon (who also shot 2013’s equally tantalising and sculptural Stranger By the Lake) and Kuwaiti experimental musician Fatima Al Qadiri’s score, the film is lent a lovingly textured weight. The grooves of Atlantic grow ever more deep as it continues, buoyed along by such formal attributes.
Though Diop’s extratextual legacy threatens to somewhat eclipse her and her film (she’s frequently introduced in the same breath as Denis, and her uncle, filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty), Atlantics stands on the firm ground of its director and director alone. There’s an added poignancy, with Diop returning to the material which governed her excellent 2009 short, Atlantiques, an essayistic retelling of a group of boys’ own perilous journey of immigration. The short’s elliptical sequencing is forgone for a display of fundamental cinematic control in Atlantics, with no precocious showboating or grandiloquent excess to be found. The fact that the film’s denouement, an expected and even novel moment of intimacy rendered with little more than a mirror and some scattered reflections, is so sensually breathtaking proves that Atlantics isn’t an announcement of Diop’s talent, but a wholehearted affirmation.
Atlantics screened as part of the 57th New York Film Festival.