The Atlantic Ocean is where the action happens and does not happen in the French-Senegalese director and writer Mati Diop's film Atlantique (English title: Atlantics). Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) is a construction worker, who has not been paid, and sets out to Spain along with other workers from Dakar which lies along the Atlantic coast.
He loves Ada (Mame Bibeta Sané), and Ada loves him. But Ada is set to be married to another man, Omar (Babacar Sylla). As soon as Souleiman leaves Dakar via the Atlantic Ocean, Diop's film is Ada's. Omar is a wealthy man: he gifts her an expensive phone, takes her to resorts, and wants to spend time with Ada. Ada's heart, however, is waiting for Souleiman. Strange events occur later, and Issa (Amadou Mbow), a detective comes into the picture to find out more.
That's the bare plot of the film. Olivier Demangel co-wrote the film with Diop, and Claire Mathon, the cinematographer of the intensely beautiful Portrait of a Lady on Fire, did the camerawork for Atlantics as well. The film is in Wolof and French, and runs for 104 minutes. It was first shown in Cannes 2019, where Diop was the first Black woman to direct a film featured in competition; to top that, she won the Grand Prix. It released on Netflix later that year and has been on the streaming platform since.
The film is centrally a love story; a romance! Ada and Souleiman are lovers who cannot be separated despite Omar, or Issa, or even the Atlantic Ocean. Their struggle touches upon many themes. There are very few films that talk about money; Atlantics does. Souleiman does not have any, so he is going to Spain; Ada does not have any, so she is being asked to marry Omar.
Migration is another: most people from North Africa and the Middle East find themselves taking a boat to Europe under difficult and impossible circumstances. Atlantics, too, finds Souleiman doing that in order to be a refugee in Spain and make some money so that he can come back to Ada, or call her there. Employment opportunities are clearly sparse, and there is rampant exploitation, as in Souleiman's case; you have to find your own way.
For Ada, though, the struggle with her family is another issue. They have asked her to marry (no, set up a wedding with) Omar and there's no way out; the littlest of things – such as when Ada fails a virginity test – are cause for grave concern for her, her family, and Omar's family. There are a few more meditations on loss and grief, and life and death, but I would not want to go into them now.
The waves of the ocean at night are shot so beautifully by Mathon that it almost seemed magical when she introduces lights from a bar, just enough to reveal who's who when people are dancing. The result, her camerawork, Diop's direction, and Sané's performance are things to be watched, and not written about anymore.