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Atlantics

Released 2019. Director: Mati Diop

THE DEAD NEVER REALLY DIE. THEY OFTEN FIND A WAY to return to the land of the living because there are things to take care of, words to be said, and people to see one last time. We’ve known stories like this in movies countless times. Atlantics is a new take on a familiar theme from Senegal.

In her feature-film directorial debut, documentary maker Mati Diop sets her story on the dusty streets of Dakar, a city on the western tip of Africa. There’s an unrest among construction workers on a high-rise project because they haven’t been paid in three months. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore), one of the men caught in this financial bind, decides to set off with a few others in a small boat to enter Spain illegally. He meets up with his girlfriend Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) but couldn’t bring himself to tell her the truth. Ada, on the other hand, will become someone else’s wife in a few days in an arranged marriage.

Not long after Souleiman and his friends have gone missing, news comes that they have drowned. Ada goes ahead with her wedding, quietly devastated. On the wedding night, the conjugal bed mysteriously catches fire. The inspector believes arson is involved, though he has no witnesses. At the same time, he seems to be undergoing some kind of physical ailment that impairs his work.

If you started watching the movie without knowing it’s a ghost story, what happens next will leave no room for doubt. Zombified women getting out of bed and leaving home in the dead of night, walking barefoot across town to terrorise the construction boss. Their eyes turn milky white, their expressions stern, and they demand the money owed to the workers be paid, or else.

Atlantics doesn’t overplay the horror aspect. The possessed contingent only hounds the one man whose exploitation sends unpaid workers to their watery graves. They mean nobody else any harm. There are no spooky incidents or jump scares. This is one of the most serene movies of the paranormal involving spirits taking over human bodies.

Ada has her own encounter when Souleiman returns by taking over the inspector’s body. To make it easy for us audience, Souleimen and the men show themselves in mirror reflections. So Ada can be confident the man she’s dancing with is really the man she loved, just ignore the fact he looks like the inspector.

By this time the parallels with Ghost (1990) are apparent. What’s different is the absence of weepy and cheesy scenes such as Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore shaping pottery to the song Unchained Melody. Or Whoopi Goldberg’s scene-stealing comic turns.

Mati Diop has a lot of opportunities for a lyrical and poetic take on a love story from beyond the grave, but she opts for a more gritty depiction, often showing us the oppressive heat, cluttered streets, stray dogs, crowds, glimpses of the disparity between the affluent and those they exploit, of the patriarchal and economic tyranny.

She also likes to cut to shots of the Atlantic Ocean, the vast sweep at times reflecting the blinding dazzle of the sun, or a shimmering fireball dipping below the horizon. These views of the ocean seem to suggest a larger, mysterious power in their presence. The futuristic skyscraper being constructed is always seen at a distance, shrouded in haze like an apparition and adds to the suggestion of an other-world in their midst.

Atlantics is essentially an old-fashioned love story, its message that love never dies may appear trite, but it also updates the template by having women stepping in to finish the work left unfinished by men, and a central female character defiant against the system, tradition and life itself.


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