“I really love to be magnetized” explained Mati Diop in an interview with Film Comment about her debut feature Atlantics, which exerts precisely that kind of irresistible pull. Early on in the film, Diop gives us a series of views of the North Atlantic Ocean shimmering invitingly under the low-hanging sun. For the day laborers working on a massive construction project in Senegal’s coastal capital of Dakar, the sea represents the lure of escape. It’s the route chosen by Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a young man who is well aware of the dangers of trying to sail to Europe and also of the likely hardships that await him there; he’s also paralyzed by his affection for 17-year-old Ada (Mame Sané), who has been promised to a wealthier suitor. But he sets out anyway, a perilous decision that evokes a larger sociopolitical reality even as the film uses it as a launching pad toward fantasy; in her own subtle and surprising way, Diop has crafted the year’s saddest and most resonant ghost story.
The shivers that run through Atlantics, which arrives on Netflix on Friday, are not ones of fear, although the film does possess its share of striking, horror-style imagery. The connection between Souleiman’s disappearance and presumed demise and a series of strange, putatively supernatural events piling up around the people he left behind is unravelled with genuine precision and patience. This is a way of saying, perhaps, that the film moves slowly, and if so, so what? Diop has acted for Claire Denis, and absorbed some of her belief in forcing the audience to meet a filmmaker halfway, if not further—she draws us in on her own terms. It is this same focused, uncompromised approach that allows Diop’s deceptively simple narrative and its embedded cultural allusions to develop their power. Following his departure, Souleiman is reconfigured from a potential Romeo in a tale of star cross’d lovers into a kind of structuring absence, a symbol of a generation so alienated from the possibility of prosperity at home that they’d rather risk their lives on the ocean. (Diop’s 2009 short Atlantiques features a young man retelling the story of his passage during 2008’s “Barcelone ou la Mort” migration.) When he comes back, however, his presence—which Diop styles as an enigma by showing him largely through Ada’s eyes—comes to signify something else, a desire for recompense and retribution that takes the form of vengeance.
The magnetism that Diop describes also comes into play in Atlantics’ major twist, which is ideally left unspoiled but also so central to the film’s conception that it can’t be completely danced around. Suffice it to say that Diop makes a bid for Atlantics to join the ranks of movies that mobilize zombies as a metaphor. In an excellent review of Atlantics for Mubi, Kelli Weston writes that the zombie is the “original emblem of the African diaspora,” caught in purgatory between life and death like the young men trying to navigate the passage between home and some new world. By the time the trope reached Hollywood, it had been skilfully and effectively appropriated, as in Jacques Tourneur’s low-budget masterpiece I Walked With a Zombie, whose hulking, silent cipher Carrefour (Darby Jones) casts a long, problematic shadow as a vision of a racialized Other. George A. Romero tried to subvert things by casting a black man as the hero of Night of the Living Dead, pitting the protagonist against mouldering hordes that evoked the juggernaut of Nixon’s “silent majority”; 50 years later, the trend of simply using the undead as placeholders for social phenomenon has yielded diminishing returns (a cash prize should go to the first filmmaker to huffily claim that the subject of her new movie is “an allegory for zombies”).
Atlantics depicts zombification as a form of possession conferring not mindlessness but agency—an inversion that may be Diop’s cleverest invention. If there’s something uneasy about the suggestion that Ada and her female friends are only able to stand up to their community’s corrupt patriarchy via some ephemeral injection of masculinity, there’s also a potent, implied sense of class solidarity that crosses gender lines. The movie’s true subject is the disparity between haves and have-nots, symbolized in the superbly menacing tower whose painstaking and expensive erection catalyzes the plot. (Although modelled on the modern, monolithic architecture of high-rolling, downtown Dubai, it recalls nothing so much as the thrusting, opulent headquarters of The Golden Fang in Inherent Vice.) For all its dreamy, elliptical editing patterns and narcotizing sound design, Atlantics is an angry movie, threading a sense of grievance through every scene until, finally, we get a passage of pure idyll—albeit tinged by melancholy. The magnetism alluded to by Diop pulls two characters so closely together that the fact that they can only connect through a proxy almost doesn’t seem to matter. It’s futile and fulfilling at the same time, and the perfect end point for a movie that works to keep its audience suspended vertiginously between states of focus and drift, of realism and fantasy, of confusion and understanding.