The ability of film to transport us into new and unpredictable worlds is beautifully demonstrated in “Atlantics,” a real spell-caster. This one made my 2019 Top Ten list.
Our story takes place in an oceanside section of the urban sprawl of Dakar, Senegal. At first, we seem to be watching a simple love story: teenager Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) shares a warm kiss at the beach with her boyfriend, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore).
He’s a construction worker at a ritzy new building, but the owners are months behind in paying the workers. Souleiman and some friends vanish, having set out by boat at night in hope of better opportunities in Spain.
We do not travel with them. Instead, we stick with Ada, as she navigates her worry about Souleiman’s disappearance and her parents’ heartless expectation that she’ll marry the wealthy jerk to whom she’s been engaged.
It’s an interesting situation in an evocative place, rich with detail. But just when you think you have this movie figured out, it shape-shifts on you.
It wouldn’t be fair to spell out exactly what happens with Ada over the next few days, but by some strange magic, “Atlantics” drifts away from being a slice of life and into the territory of folklore — even into the realm of the ghost story.
At one point we must wonder whether a poltergeist is responsible for setting fire to a nuptial bed. When the investigation of this event is assigned to a cop (Amadou Mbow), he finds himself overcome by bizarre bouts of drowsiness, like a character in a fairy tale who keeps falling asleep.
The different strands of this unpredictable story are artfully tied together by director Mati Diop, in her first feature film. How she weaves together the realities of Dakar life — from the grit of the construction site to the believable conversations in Ada’s community — with the paranormal aspects of the story is a mystery, wonderfully achieved. (Paris-born Diop is the niece of Djibril Diop Mambety, a great figure in African cinema.)
With cinematographer Claire Mathon, Diop creates hazy cityscapes and laser-studded nightclubs. The sea is a constant, a place both beckoning and threatening, and somehow it never seems to look the same way twice. The film absolutely has something to say — about haves and have-nots, about the ecosystem of immigration — but it’s also a dream. “Atlantics” makes you feel like a sleepwalker, bearing witness to a series of everyday marvels, with eyes wide shut.
“Atlantics” (4 stars)
Two lovers in Dakar are separated by fate, but paranormal events seem to intervene. Director Mati Diop’s film is definitely about issues, including immigration, but it’s also a waking dream of a movie, mysterious and hypnotic. In Wolof and French, with English subtitles.
Rating: Not rated; probably R for subject matter
Opening Friday: Beacon Cinema in Seattle; available to stream on Netflix