Ada, and Ardor

Mati Diop, Atlantics, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 104 minutes. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) and Ada (Mama Sané).

MATI DIOP’S ATLANTICS is a girl’s coming-of-age story wrapped in a magical realism thriller, edged with an unsparing depiction of economic exploitation in a rapidly modernizing Senegal. It’s a lot to handle in a debut feature, but thanks to ambition, intelligence, and the desire to relate a story that is seldom told from the inside, Diop—aided by Claire Mathon’s hauntingly shadowed cinematography and composer Fatima Al Qadiri’s sinuous, dissonant score—pulls it off almost without a hitch. The influence of Claire Denis, who gave Diop her first screen role in 35 Shots of Rum (2008), is clear here, as is that of Diop’s uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose Touki Bouki (1973), like Atlantics, is set in Dakar and involves young lovers dreaming of finding freedom in Paris—the city where his niece was born, the daughter of a French mother and Senegalese father. Diop grew up in Paris, but when she committed to becoming a filmmaker, she embraced her African history. Her first short, Atlantiques (2009), is a dreamlike evocation of a group of young men who, in search of work, undertake the perilous ocean journey from Dakar to Europe. Are they imagining their deaths, or are they already ghosts? Nothing in this lyrical short film, or in the five inventive hybrid documentaries and portraits that followed, suggested that Diop would be capable of making a film as narratively complex and emotionally resonant as Atlantics, let alone that she would be the first black woman to have a feature film in competition at Cannes, or that the film would win the 2019 Grand Prix. (That’s the award just below the Palme d’Or, which went to Parasite, a film of similarly shifting tonalities by the Korean master Bong Joon-ho.)

Atlantics is a film about contested beliefs, and how a young woman navigates them to tell her own story of love, loss, and the discovery of freedom. It opens on the outskirts of Dakar, where an office tower is under construction. An Islamic Futurist monument to patriarchal supremacy, it shimmers like a fata morgana through air thick with granite dust. This dust coats a team of young men who are fighting with their construction foremen over three months’ back pay. The camera is in the middle of the fray, tight on the faces and bodies of the workers; throughout the rest of the film, it is on its heroine, Ada (Mama Sané), who is in love with one of the laborers, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré). They both live in a suburb of Dakar but are soon trysting on the beach. When their assignation is interrupted by a passerby, Ada blithely runs off, assuring Souleiman that she’ll see him soon at Dior’s, the oceanfront club where they hang out. But Ada and Souleiman are both keeping secrets: Ada has not told him that her parents have arranged for her to marry the wealthy, handsome Omar, and that the wedding is only ten days away. And Souleiman hasn’t told her that in a few hours, he and his friends will be attempting the perilous journey across the Atlantic to try to find work in Spain.

Mati Diop, Atlantics, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 104 minutes.

Abandoned by Souleiman and under pressure from her family and friends—which include the hajib-wearing Marianna and the young women who flaunt their designer knockoffs at Dior’s (in her notes for the film, Diop refers to them, ironically but not unkindly, as “Afrocapitalist neofeminists”)—Ada goes through with the nuptials. Why not? She’ll be rich and won’t have to spend much time with Omar, who mostly lives in Europe. But before the marriage can be consummated in the entirely white bedroom of Omar’s screamingly nouveau riche mansion, the bed itself spontaneously combusts. After hearing rumors that Souleiman had been seen outside the house, and that he and Ada are involved, a young police inspector aggressively questions Ada, who insists that Souleiman is in Spain, even though everyone at Dior’s knows that all the men on the pirogue drowned when a storm overtook them. If Souleiman has returned, it is as a ghost—a jinni who has power over fire. Soon, the women whose husbands, lovers, and brothers have died confront the corrupt construction boss, who, terrified by their whited-out eyes, not to mention their solidarity, gives them the money they are owed. And Ada, having received a text from someone she believes is Souleiman, arranges to meet him at a beach motel. Their lovemaking is an act of both possession and release. The next morning, Ada begins her job as a bartender at Dior’s. Her name, called out like a refrain throughout the film by everyone who projects their expectations on her, is finally resolved by her three words: “I am Ada.”

If this seems like a lot of narrative, it is told in fragments—as it might be absorbed, in all its ambiguity, by a young woman who refuses the stereotypes of the good girl or the bad girl, or even that there is a hard-and-fast boundary between the living and the dead. The human interactions are elided by images of the natural world: the vast expanse of the ocean, the crescent moon glowing in a near-black sky, the flaming red sun sinking below the sea’s horizon. However indifferent, the presence of the sea, the sun, and the moon allows Diop to take a story that is specific in its dynamics of power, money, and gender and suggest a new myth for the future—of how a young woman escapes the liminal and embarks, alone but readily, on a journey into the unknown.

Atlantics opens in select theaters on November 15 and on Netflix November 29.