Updated: Apr 6, 2021
In the Senegalese-French film Atlantics, movement is a constant force that drives and defines. It is in the gentle wave of a curtain, the trancelike walk of young women in the dead of night, and of course, in the vibratory shots of the ocean that gives the movie its name. Directed by Mati Diop, the film takes place in Senegal and centers around Ada, a teenager who is in love with young construction worker Souleiman but has been set up by her parents to marry the rich Omar. Soleimein works on a tall, sleek looking tower with other construction workers, but when they have not been paid their wages for 4 months, they decide to sail to Spain in search of work, and they soon shipwreck, dying at sea. Things turn strange, however, when Ada’s soon to be wedding bed catches on fire with witnesses saying that they saw Souleiman do it despite the fact that he has been at sea, while the female partners of the men who set sail start turning mysteriously sick and demanding the men’s unpaid wages from their boss in the middle of the night.
Much like its wave-like imagery and the characters’ spirits moving between the realm of the living and the dead, Diop’s film is never fixed and never simple, refusing to adhere to one category or deliver one message. It moves between languages (Wolof, French, and Arabic), combines genres (Drama, Romance, Mystery, Supernatural Fantasy), and paints pictures of grounded hyperrealism underneath an ethereal gossamer haze. The feeling tone contains moments of great hope and empowerment that emerge from an underlying tide of ache.
The ocean, as the centerpiece of the film, reflects these tensions and harmonies both visually and thematically. While often in film, the ocean is painted with either a gentle fluidity or a harsh and definitive crashing, Diop captures the ocean as a site that feels both trapped and wildly energetic. The long, often unsettling shots are sometimes filmed with a shakiness that shows an intense internal movement in the water but not where the water is moving to, as if the depths contain some active energy that cannot quite escape. Other times, it has a sense of healing, a soothing and beautiful dark magic. This reflects the thematic significance of the ocean within the story, as Diop draws focus to the African people who have sailed across the ocean towards Europe due to socioeconomic oppression and colonization. The unnerving, threatening way that the ocean is sometimes filmed is an acknowledgement of the deaths that have taken place there. The men in the story died at sea, having left because they were receiving nothing while building a tower for the rich. The fact that their spiritual entities return for their recompense, however, suggests that none of these lives are truly lost or forgotten, but energetically remain, echoed in the visual power of the water. When the construction workers who died at sea, spiritually back on land, gather at the shore, one of them declares, “Every time you look at the tower, you’ll think of our unburied bodies at the bottom of the ocean.” The moment is simultaneously tragic and empowering, the sea acting as both a graveyard and an active, spiritual site of memory.
Always multifaceted, Diop’s commentary also puts a great focus on women, the theme of spiritual possession and haunting being used to depict male possession of female bodies with honesty but never didacticism. It is presented with realism in Ada’s unwanted arranged marriage, the violating virginity test that she is objected to, and in all of the women’s fears and limitations of achieving wealth and prosperity only through men. But the theme is most arresting and complex in the men’s spiritual possession of the women’s bodies, reflecting not just the control that men have over women, but also the figurative way that women are haunted by the men that they loved and depended on but lost to the sea.
But despite all of this, Diop’s ultimate lens is not one of victimization, but of hope and self-possession. The very fact that it is through the female bodies that the men succeed in demanding their due centers women as agents of change and strength. And the spirits of the men who died at sea demanding justice suggests that not even death can stamp out the voices and presence of those who are oppressed. After Ada has reunited with Souleiman’s ghost under the night sky, by the shore of the ocean that has carried his body away, there is a sense of peace and transformation. At the very end of the film, she gazes directly into the camera, reflecting with self-assuredness, “Some memories are omens. Last night will stay with me, to remind me who I am and show me who I will become. Ada, to whom the future belongs. I am Ada.” Her ability to act on her own desires as well as her understanding that she can remain connected to the one that she loves even after his death bring her a feeling of self-possession that goes beyond her current self and into an ownership of her future. Diop suggests an indelible connection between those from the past, present, and future, and the persistence of spirit and memory, even when moving between the waves and the shore.