After being denied pay again at his construction job, Suleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) hears the ocean calling to him as he and his coworkers make their way home. Mati Diop floods the speakers with a siren-like drone as the Atlantic laps and curls on the Senegalese shore. It is dangerous and unknowable, the horizon melting off into the bleached sky, but as a passage to more prosperous means, it is a temptation he and his friends find too hard to resist. Before they leave on a boat destined for Brazil, Suleiman enchants his lover Ada (Mama Sané) with what become his parting gifts: a necklace and a barrage of kisses. His disappearance shakes her because her impending marriage to the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla) is now as sure as the wind, even though she feels not an ounce of passion for him. Her family wills it into being, and she begrudgingly follows through. But rumours of Suleiman’s sudden return, compounded with an unaccountable fire that destroys her wedding bed, starts off a chain of inexplicable occurrences that build in wonder and intensity.
Like her uncle, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Diop is concerned about both her native Senegalese kinsmen, as well as the expatriates who moved away to better themselves in new worlds. Here she also includes those who died making the perilous passage to those distant shores, adding a supernatural element to her love story so that the dead voices washed away by the sea can speak their truths again—as well as exact vengeance on the people that drove them to leave in the first place. Like the teenage girls who, at the stroke of sundown, become the vessels of these dead spirits, Diop’s film is itself a vessel of generations of storied traditions. Like an old folk tale, it is told plainly and without prevarication, making simple linkages as the story unwinds until it ends on a note of bittersweet romance. This will no doubt frustrate viewers craving for elaborate twists, but there really is no need for them. To honour one’s dead, it is best to be as precise as possible, for it makes their journey back to the realm of the living less arduous.
It is a striking film both sonically and visually, capturing the heart of Senegalese culture (as well as its many eccentricities, especially related to the role of women in its society) without unduly romanticizing it. Even Ada’s final “victory” is only half-gratifying, for to reunite with Suleiman, she must first embrace the body of a man she detests. One can see in Ada’s act a universal gesture of compromise: that to love the idea of a body (be it political, geographical or corporeal), one must first accept that the body is, itself, flawed. That it is not the ideal truth, but a conception of it that will never live up to what we expect or want it to be. But when Ada embraces this body, half-loved and half-hated, she is also liberating herself from the passive acceptance of what “must” be dictated by the traditional order. She tastes the promise of something more for herself in the sightlines of a spiritual presence, and in her growth, I see Diop herself stepping out into the film industry as a stronger and more confident presence. She has calmed the waters and reached the shore of her apogee, and which turn she takes next will be something to closely follow.
Atlantics received its North American premiere at TIFF in the Contemporary World Cinema programme on September 9, 2019.