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Bewitching and masterful, ‘Atlantics’ is unlike any film you’ve ever seen

A scene from "Atlantics."Netflix

It’s the cherry on top of a weird and paradigm-busting 2019 that one of the very best films of the year — a movie that won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, in May — isn’t getting a Boston theatrical release but instead has been available as of Nov. 29 on Netflix. “Atlantics” is a stunner that sneaks up on you: A folk tale, a police procedural, a ghost story, a love story, a fable of empowerment — Mati Diop’s directorial debut never stops evolving in new directions and meanings. It’s a work of magical realism close to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other masters of the game, and the confidence with which it has been made is thrilling.


We’re in Dakar, Senegal, a coastal city dominated by the ocean spreading endlessly west. A group of construction workers at a nearly-finished skyscraper are up in arms about back wages that never seem to arrive. One of them, a young man named Souleiman (Traore), visibly vibrates with frustration: He has no money; a lover, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), who’s engaged to another man; and no place to take her.

Mame Bineta Sane, as Ada, in "Atlantics."Netflix

The society in ”Atlantics” is suspended between the 21st century and the 15th. Ada and her girlfriends hang out at a beachfront nightclub run by a protective mother hen named Dior (Nicole Sougou); they spend as much time on their smartphones as every twenty-something on the planet and then go home to a culture rooted in Muslim traditions and practical magic. When Ada’s affair becomes known, the imam tells her parents to get her down to Dakar’s modern hospital to have her virginity tested.

Souleiman and his fellow workers disappear on a small boat, bound for Italy and hoped-for jobs. Ada marries her fiance, a Europeanized rich boy named Omar (Babacar Sylla), in a ceremony that feels joyous with tradition to everyone but the bride. Then something strange happens: The marriage bed is set ablaze, and witnesses swear that Souleiman did it. A young police officer, Issa (Amadou Mbow), is called in to investigate.


Traore, as Souleiman, in "Atlantics."Netflix

And here is where “Atlantics” lifts off into fairy tale and urban legend, and I will say no more other than to note that spiritual possession becomes part of the plot — of whom, by whom, and to what purpose it would be pointless to spoil. Diop, who co-wrote the screenplay with Olivier Demangel, is a Paris-born actress from a prominent Senegalese family; she starred in Claire Denis’s “35 Shots of Rum” (2008) and has directed several shorts and one documentary. “Atlantics” has been expanded and rethought from her first short (“Atlantiques,” 2009) and seems to have benefited from a decade of steeping in the filmmaker’s imagination. Everything feels assured; even when you have no idea where the movie’s going, trust me, Diop does.

The two key figures, ultimately, are Ada, who’s defiant in her reckless passion for her lover, and Issa, a detective who loses his way the deeper into the case he gets. There are aspects of a revenge tale in “Atlantics": The scenes in which the skyscraper’s builder is confronted with the mistreatment of his workers are hair-raisingly eerie. There’s a simmering outrage, too, in the depiction of the control a patriarchal theocracy exerts over its young women. The politics of the immigrant diaspora are fiercely glanced at. And we see the power of one man’s love for a woman break through every barrier imaginable, including the supernatural. In the end, it’s the logic-minded cop who realizes all the unseen, irrational tendrils connecting this story’s many parts — and his own role in the dream.


“Atlantics” is rich with visual and aural poetry: Claire Mathon’s color-saturated photography, a sinuous score by Fatima Al Qadiri, the wide, wide Atlantic that feels seen or heard in every shot and that watches the characters with majestic impassiveness. For all that, Diop has hard facts in mind: the way women and men, workers and wives, can be mistreated by the societies in which they live, and how justice can sometimes be found only by reaching into the mystical. She has woven all these concerns and more into a bewitching and masterful film unlike any you’ve ever seen.



Directed by Mati Diop. Written by Diop and Olivier Demangel. Starring Mame Bineta Sane, Amadou Mbow. On Netflix. 106 minutes. TV-14.