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Choice and Longing in ‘Atlantics’

‘Atlantics,’ directed by Mati Diop and written by Diop and Olivier Demangal, begins with a view of a modern building towering over Dakar, Senegal. The looming structure twists clockwise as your eyes move towards its peak. It is a building that trys a little too hard to convince you that it is “modern.” It casts a shadow over every other structure in the city, making them barely visible.

The film itself follows Ada, a woman who is engaged to a wealthy man named Omar. At the same time, she is secretly seeing Souleiman, one of a group of men working on this dystopian structure. After Souleiman and his coworkers learn that they are not getting paid for more than four months of work, they decide to immigrate via boat to Spain. Unknowing of these plans, Ada and her friends sneak out to meet up with Souleiman and the others one night. Upon arrival, the bar is empty and word spreads of their journey. With Souleiman gone, Ada is presented with choices she must contend with for the rest of the movie. These choices rely on the chance for a new path, but she also fears what comes after.

There are two recurring shots in this movie. One is of the dystopian tower mentioned earlier, the other is of the Atlantic ocean. Once Ada learns Souleiman has left, the film presents you with this shot of the sea. It’s beautiful, but there is a sense of dread as you think of it’s context. The sea and the dystopian building are intertwined. They each make promises to Soleiman and Ada. The building promises a paycheck and economic development. The sea promises a better life, stable employment, and money to send home. They are both lies.

Diop understands the importance of contrast in her artistic direction. Passage of time is made through sharp cuts from day to night, sometimes interrupted by a shot of the sunset or sunrise over the sea. Important story beats in the day rely on the grit of the city and Ada’s self-discovery. The night dives deep into love and spirituality Diop asks the audience to take a step back and appreciate people’s love for one another while questioning the tragic path one takes to care for and protect the other.

‘Atlantics’ is a movie about longing and sadness. It emphasises these themes by creating a story that feels mythical at times. It doesn’t just settle into these story beats though. Diop and Demangal write fully realized characters that have already made the choices Ada is struggling with. A police officer that is seduced by the grittiness of his job and the city. A bartender that embraces a life many look down upon in Senegal. A girl who holds onto African and Muslim tradition, resenting those who take a different path. 

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The choices these characters made in the past have made them who they are today. Some are content with their choices, others are struggling. The choices each character makes rarely results in happiness. There is regret and loneliness. The choices they are given are unfair from the start, but they commit to them for the promise of something better.

Mati Diop’s ‘Atlantics’ was nominated for the Cannes Film Festival’s top award, the Palme d’Or. Although recognized for the highest prize at Cannes, ‘Atlantics’ was not nominated for a single Oscar this year. This could have been a fantastic nomination for international feature, cinematography, or director. In the long run, any call out ‘Atlantics’ misses by not being a part of the Oscars is inconsequential. I am positive this unique film will be remembered for much better reasons than winning a golden trophy.

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