' ' Cinema Romantico: Atlantics

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” is defined by dueling visual motifs, the ocean giving the movie its title brushing up against the Senegalese coast and an under-construction skyscraper. This edifice is so enormous it hardly fits in the movie’s opening shot, looking down a Dakar street, squeezing in just the building’s base on the right hand side of the frame, though eventually we see it from afar, looming over the capital city. It is digitally created, which is not a flaw but just right, merely enhancing its inherent futuristic feel, coming across less like anything of this world than the Iowa shipyards in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.” Not that Dakar turns on Trekonomics. The building’s height signifies nothing if not the consolidation of wealth, all going into its raising, which is why Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) and his construction worker pals are not paid and why the girl Souleiman is seeing on the sly, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), is engaged to a wealthy man, Omar (Babacar Sylla), she does not necessarily love. Ah, but if the tower would seem to pull on the tides, like a capitalist lunar cycle, or something, “Atlantics” proves it’s the other way around.

The opening moments, in which Souleiman and his fellow workers storm the construction offices, demanding to be paid, only to be told, in that familiar undertow of circular logic, that the administrative people, too, are just doing their job and, hey, there’s no money, suggests a film of verisimilitude, underlined in the camera’s close proximity to the characters. That’s not a feint, exactly, because Diop paints a realistic portrait of life in Dakar, but it belies an emergent mystical bent. Indeed, the ensuing scene finds these empty-handed workers in the back of a pickup truck speeding along a highway near the shore, the camera cutting between the men singing, though Souleiman seems to be mired in a state of extreme agitation, and the rolling ocean waves. This scene goes on for three minutes, illustrating how “Atlantics” is not so much a movie to be watched but an experience to be had, pulled along less by what’s happening than what you’re feeling, evoked in the incredible, mostly electronic score by Fatima Al Qadiri. Cursory research tells us that Al Qadiri was, in her synthesizer, conjuring up the sound of the thumb piano, or Mbira, which is sometimes utilized to call a spirit or possess a medium, and which, in retrospect, is essentially what the scene is doing in the music and the call and the rhythm and the waves. I sort of want to say “there’s your Cinema!”, but let’s not open that can of worms.

Souleiman and his friends, we learn after the fact, have fled to Spain to find work which will presumably pay. They don’t reach their destination, alas, perishing along the way, and Ada winds up going ahead with her marriage to Omar, the wedding sequence shot in such a bright way that, despite the groom’s father’s earnest words, it looks like a ceremony in a serial killer’s basement. Those bad vibes take the form of a fire that incinerates the bed where the newlyweds are supposed to consecrate their union and initially the presumed dead Souleiman is fingered at the arsonist, one of Ada’s friends swearing she saw him just before. This might suggest a brewing ghostly whodunit, but if you go in searching for finite narrative details, you will wind up like the poor police inspector (Amadou Mbow), confident he can crack the case even as he suffers enigmatic fainting spells in the hot sun. This is not a story told by conventional means but through the pull of the tides, the sway of the moon. And that isn’t just romanticized prose. Over and over, Diop returns to shots of the setting sun, the hanging moon, the rolling tide, which are not transition shots between scenes but akin to the creator. I don’t know if Mati Diop listens to Neko Case but I kept thinking of her line “God is an unspecified tide.”

Diop furthers this natural connection by frequently eradicating the regular barriers between interiors and exteriors, whether it’s the spot where Soueliman and Ada steal away together or the dance club where Ada and the girlfriends of other construction workers gather to wait for word from their voyage at sea, as if the natural world is gradually encroaching on the industrialized one. In a way, it is as Ada’s friends become possessed by the spirits of Souleiman and the perished. If it sounds intense, Diop carves out something more eerie, and eerily beautiful, the girls’ eyes when possessed not quite rolling back in their head, just turning a ghostly white, imagining the walking dead as moving marble busts, their self-possession the symbol of their souls being set free.

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