Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 10, 2019 3:57 am 
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Economic desperation, drowned African refugees, a love story and a ghost story

Atlantics is a refugee drama, transformed into magic and mystery and revenge by possession, that focuses on the women left behind by a group of men suddenly lost at sea when desperation in their work leads them to try to sail to Spain in an open boat. It focuses on a popular suburb of Dakar, poor but vibrant with youth, where workers on a construction site with a futuristic (CGI) tower have striven for months without pay. Among them is Souleiman (Traore), the tall, handsome young lover of Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), who is to marry the well-off Omar (Babacar Sylla) in ten days. A French reviewer called this film "an emotional, visual, and sonorous poem." As the action plays out, the real gives way to dream: the young women take back their power through being possessed by the spirit of their men. The busy trailer for the film uses the tag line DF Wallace's biographer DT Max links to him, "Every love story is a ghost story."

Despite its grand prize, a few French critics found the 36-year-old Diop's film mix of genres lacked mastery; resorted too often to shots of the sea or the full moon. Mike D'Angelo was bothered by the fact that Soleiman possesses the notably fit and young police inspector Issa (Amadou Mbow) instead of Ada and can't agree with Jay Weissberg's interpretation that in his Variety review that this switch is to "avoid any same-sex 'awkwardness' towards the end." Maybe what both writers really object to is resorting to the supernatural to resolve socioeconomic issues in the first place. That is what bothers me - while nonetheless Diap's choice to focus on the bereaved women, partly a practical one, seems justified as a way of examining the tragedy of drowned African refugees.

The main force of the action is that grief is transformed into righteous anger when a group of the women turn milky-eyed at night and go several times to haunt the crooked building project boss, Mr. N’Diaye (Diankou Sembene) and eventually force him to pay them all the lost men's back wages. But there is also the brief return of Soleiman in the body of the fit Issa to make love once with the bereaved Ada. Soleiman's entering the body of Issa is emotional logic, the only kind that prevails here.

This is a film that makes great sense overall but has shortcomings in the details. You can find fault with various plot elements. Another is that though Ada has the conservative friend, Mariama (Mariama Gassama), who berates her for not being nice to her new rich husband she doesn't love, Omar, it would have been better to include severe hijab-wearing friends, and not just fun-loving ones. D'Angelo certainly has a point that Inspector Issa's investigation of the fire of the marriage bed and persecution of Ada is repetitious and inexplicable. The repeated shots of the sea are indeed repetitious, though they do serve as a reminder of its devouring maw and the loss of all the fine young men.

But all this is beside the point in a way because what is enchanting and strong is the way Mati Diap captures the vivacity and physical beauty of the Senegalese people here. This is Africa, and the film shows us what that means. Soleiman is a gorgeous young man, tall, pretty, with the long, loose, forward stride they all have, which conveys a sense of optimism, strength, confidence: you can imagine how they'd think they could sail to Spain in a little open boat. Ada is equally beautiful, slim, supple, forward-striding, charming, coquettish. In their brief afternoon scene when they kiss and long for more, and there is never a goodbye and Soleiman (like all the men) never tells his beloved he is going to sail away, is yet a bright and memorable moment full of sensuality and lost promise.

Likewise all the scenes of the women afterwards glow with color and energy. The action sparkles. The whole film flashes and pops, underlined by Fatima Al Qadiri's music and Claire Mathon's cinematography that is somehow vivid and rough, in-your-face yet pleasing, a palette that's "muted," as Weissberg says, emphasizing the people, and the (bright and often hazy) light. Even the repetitious full moon and sea horizon shots underline the sensual simplicity of the style. The vigor of the young men is so well conveyed in the opening scenes that their temporary survival after death in the night-possessed women feels possible. This is about the beauty of African youth and an energy and strength that can live on after death. Even if Diap's story choices seem alien to you, you can feel that they come from somewhere profound. This is a film bold in its ambition and imagination, so much so it skips over certain details of logic or consistency.

Atlantics/Atlantique, 104 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 16, 2019, and subsequently was awarded the Grand Prix. Mati Diop is the first woman of African descent to have a film showing in Competition at the festival or win an award in its 72 years. The film opened theatrically in Dakar in Aug. Eight other festivals are listed including London, the Hamptons, Chicago and New York. It was screened at the NYFF for this review Oct. 9, 2019. AlloCiné press rating 3.4 from 28 review (though many admired it, a good number of French critics also found it seriously flawed), while the Anglophone critics response was apparently much more glowing, given a Metascore of 81% (based on 14 reviews).

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