After a successful jaunt in acting and directing short films, french actress-writer-director Mati Diop returns to Senegal for her first feature-length movie, “Atlantics.” Coincidentally, this is also the first film directed by a black woman to compete in Cannes' main competition. Maybe that’s why the reviews have been positive for this middling movie, a complete and utter slog.
The film’s opening scene has local workmen angry about not having been paid for three months of work, despite assurances from the foreman that the boss, Mr. N'Diaye (Diankou Sembene), will eventually cough up the dough. The camera eventually follows one of those workers, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore), and his blossoming love-affair with Ada (the beautiful Mama Sane). Despite her parents forcing Ada to marry Omar, a very rich man who could set her up with a life without poverty, she feels no attraction whatsoever to her husband-to-be. Meanwhile, strapped for cash and desperate to help out his family, Souleiman hears there is work in Spain and decides to take a boat with his colleagues to search for employment. Ada is devastated. All she can do now is marry Omar.
At that wedding party, a fire is set to Omar’s house. Local police detective Issa (Amadou Mbow) is assigned to the case and, after learning of Ada and Souleiman’s affair, believes they were the culprits, despite the fact that Ada swears by her innocence and the fact that she hasn’t seen Souleiman since his disappearance. The detective, unbeknownst to even himself, has a knack for randomly disappearing, passing out if you will, and waking up in random spots. This sets in motion a strange series of events, including the women of the disappeared workers rebelling, invading the home of boss N’Diaye, demanding that he repay them the debt he owes to their male partners or else…
Diop’s use of the supernatural is subtle. She refuses to make her film cling to any one genre. If anything, “Atlantics” could be called a lo-fi arthouse creeper, mostly taking place at night and banking on atmosphere to carry its dramatic momentum. Of course, since this is set in Diop’s native Senegal, it hints at that country’s problems with class, lack of modernity and religion. The imagery created by Diop is inventive — after all, she learned under Claire Denis, but “Atlantics,” despite being a true original, doesn’t find its groove.
A ghost story set on the streets of Dakar, the film is immaculately shot by Claire Mathon with a darkly mysterious score by Fatima Al Qadir. If this sounds like potentially intriguing stuff, Diop struggles to bind together the multiple narratives at hand — not one character is properly brushed upon to make you care about the circumstances. This has the audience relying more on atmosphere than character, but even taken at that regard, it falls short. If it technically accomplishes what it sets out to do, with brazenly powerful visuals, Diop’s screenplay feels like the concept for a short film rather than a 104 minute feature. [C]