Starring Mame Bineta Sane, Amadou Mbow, Aminata Kane, Ibrahima Mbaye, Babacar Sylla
Atlantics marks the second foreign film submission for Senegal for consideration in the Academy Awards International Film category. An easy choice for the west coast African country after actress-turned director Mati Diop, became first black female director in history to compete at Cannes earlier this year. Atlantics’ supernatural element makes it stand out among many of the international stories that follow characters suffering from poverty. Diop’s screenplay immerses the audience in culture and location, giving us a real sense of place as we follow lead character Ada around the coastal city of Dakar. As with many first time directors, there is a lot of visual exposition, endless scenes of Sane just walking from place to place. The narrative is left purposely vague to draw in the viewers’ curiosity, but that’s a risk Diop and her editors have taken, one that might result in viewers fast-forwarding on Netflix or abandoning all together.
In ten days Ada (Sane) will marry young, wealthy business man Omar (Sylla). Omar’s main interest in Ada is her teenage virginity, to which her parents worry has been compromised in the flirtation she shares with a local construction worker. Souleiman (Mbaye) is her age, crazy about Ada, and wants to be with her. After months of unpaid wages, he and co-workers set sail for Spain to recoup their promised wages. Strange things begin to happen in the days leading up to Ada’s arranged marriage. Omar’s new marital bed explodes in flames and the detective assigned to the case has blackouts every night. Ada’s friend Fanta (Kane) wakes up each morning with dirty feet in her bed, after a night of sleep walking with other local girls. Detective Issa (Mbow) comes to understand something surrounding Ada is possessing people and trying to keep her free of Omar.
It requires patience to get where the story is going and curiosity can only maintain a level of interest for so long.
Diop takes a traditional African story of arranged marriage to escape poverty and adds a gothic romance element to it. It requires patience to get where the story is going and curiosity can only maintain a level of interest for so long. Once the bed catches fire and the detective enters the story, things get mildly more interesting. First time actor Mame Bineta Sane invites the same criticisms aimed at Kiki Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk. Neither of the novices were experienced enough to carry the weight of the story. It’s understandable Diop wanting to cast someone who might mirror the life inexperience of the character she is playing, but Sane doesn’t give the viewer anything beyond movement and line delivery. Mbow, who gives a more engaging performance, has more to play with in his role as the detective with hot flashes.
The constant cutaways to the Atlantic Ocean at first appear to be normal scene transitions. The frequency begins to suggest more than just visual decoration and finally their purpose is revealed. The overt praise for Atlantics may be a result of being scored on a curve. The difficulty of getting films made out of Senegal and having them seen is difficult. As a first-time director working with mostly first-time actors, Diop is ambitious in what she is trying to accomplish. However, all things being equal, when the voting committee narrows down 200 submissions to the final ten where Parasite (the presumed winner) and Pain and Glory have already claimed two slots, something like Atlantics doesn’t hold much weight. Netflix is a great home for a project like this that would otherwise be lost with a micro distributor.
– Despite the ambitions of a first time filmmaker, Atlantics doesn’t stand out among other international film submissions