Atlantique, the first feature from director Mati Diop is a cinematic puzzle worth putting together. Move all the pieces to the proper place and discover a clever story with a strong message that will fill its audience with hope. However, getting to the conclusion can be tough.
The film starts in Dakar with Souleimane (Ibrahima Traore) and his coworkers. They work for pennies and have gone for months without pay. He’s far in debt and also has a family who relies on his money, but he’s advocated for his salary to no avail. With no options left, the only way out for him is to leave Senegal and travel to Spain for work by sailing across the Atlantic with the rest of his co-workers.
Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is in love with Souleimane but is arranged to be married to someone else. She doesn’t know her lover has plans to leave the country, so when they part ways, he’s saying his goodbyes for good, while she thinks it’s goodbye for now. Ada believes he will meet her at 7 p.m, and she waits, but he never shows up and doesn’t get the chance to tell her his plan.
With Souleimane gone, an illness spreads across Ada’s village. This illness affects women and one lone police officer Issa (Amadou Mbow). For the women, it starts with flu-like symptoms like sweating, stomach pains, and headaches, when the symptoms subside, the women leave their beds and roam the streets starting fires. They wake the next day with no recollection of the night before. For Issa, he sweats and aches until he blacks out. In the beginning, it’s unclear what he does when things go dark.
Ada is caught in the middle of this madness and is hit with gaslighting at every turn. When she talks to her friends, they encourage her to marry someone she doesn’t love. Her family pressures her into a marriage she doesn’t want. The cops think she’s helping start those fires and throw her in jail on an assumption she might be guilty. To add insult to injury, she’s administered a ‘virginity test’ to make sure still pure for her soon to be husband. Ada cannot catch a break, and you get the sense her future is bleak.
The film is a fictional expansion of Diop’s documentary short Atlantique which chronicles the real life experience of Senegalese men preparing to travel the Atlantic in search of a new life in Spain. Her narrative feature focuses on the women and the patriarchal hardships they encounter with men out of the picture. When men leave, how do the women in their lives pick up the pieces? In this movie, they work to reclaim what is owed to them, whether it be money, autonomy, or freedom.
As a director, Diop is a bit all over the place with how the Atlantique is shot. It’s unclear whether this is purposeful or because the director hasn’t found a style she’s comfortable with. As a storyteller, she is sincerity in telling women’s stories and wants to communicate that in a provocative way that will force any audience to think critically about what they’re watching. That could be an effect of being a mentee of French director Claire Denis who often creates work centered on femininity and individuality.
At times, Atlantique feels like three different movies at once. The Ada and Souleimane love affair take up one plot point, the how the village deals with this illness take up another, and Issa the cop take up another. New circumstances are added every time scenes are broken up by shots of the Atlantic Ocean. The story is bogged down by its placement of details and is so fragmented it makes for a laborious viewing. Fortunately, a rousing third act with a creative spin (which I refuse to spoil), that brings all the narrative elements together concisely—making the viewing experience extremely rewarding.