Saturday, November 9, 2019

Atlantics (Atlantique)

Director and co-writer Mati Diop 

Mati Diop on the set with Claire Mathon behind the camera  

ATLANTICS (Atlantique)        B+               
France  Senegal  Belgium  (105 mi)  d: Mati Diop 

The niece of Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, Mati Diop is the actress playing the daughter in the utterly gorgeous Claire Denis film 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #1 35 Shots of Rum, expanding her own short film ATLANTIQUES (2009) to a full-length feature, becoming the first black woman in history invited to the Cannes Film Festival’s competition, awarded the Grand Prix (2nd Place) for her efforts.  Beautifully shot by cinematographer Claire Mathon, who also shot Céline Sciamma’s distinctively eloquent Portrait of a Lady On Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (2019), both films were shot on separate continents, with this film balancing the devastation of a global migrant crisis driving men to sea in search of work from the shores of Africa to Spain while revealing the effect this has on the women at home waiting for them, becoming a haunting love story and a mythical portrait of female empowerment filled with supernatural spirits seeking to avenge the economic injustice that drives the central narrative, while at the same time Diop accentuates the cultural traditions of Senegalese cinema through the inventions of uncommon visual motifs of mysticism, where a modernist strain is part of Senegal’s post-independence legacy.  Unfortunately, Netflix picked up the distribution rights to the film, which means more people will watch this film on television, even their smart phones, and other small-screen venues instead of theaters that glorify the magnificent colors in Africa.  As in her previous film short, A THOUSAND SUNS (2013), Diop opens the film with a tribute to her uncle’s legendary African film TOUKI BOUKI (1973) as a herd of cattle are seen being led through the busy streets of Dakar (with one young man in the dust wearing an Eastern Chicago tee-shirt, something that doesn’t exist, yet a reminder that the black market will sell you anything), offering the perspective of ordinary Africans in Senegal, quickly eying a group of young men working on a scaffold of a major development project, viewed from a distance as a giant futuristic skyscraper (digitalized) soaring high above the rest.  It’s here we’re introduced to Souleiman (Ibrahim Traoré), just one of the many construction workers who have gone several months without pay, lining up at the office for what promises to be the first paycheck in three months, but once again they are left emptyhanded.  Watching them all disperse, sitting in the back of trucks on the long journey back home, the look of disgust on their faces is evident.  
The film quickly shifts to the lives of young Senegalese women, one in particular, 17-year old Ada (Mame Bineta Sané), an especially beautiful middle-class girl who meets Souleiman, their eyes transfixed, both madly in love, finding a solitary space, locked in each other’s arms, whispering sweet nothings, Souleiman is unsettled by the circumstances at work, yet offers her his necklace that he wears, and while he seems on the verge of telling her something important, she scampers off in the moonlight, loving him unconditionally, expecting to see him later that night, yet her devout Islamic family has arranged for her to be married to Omar (Babacar Sylla), the overprivileged son of a wealthy businessman in just ten days.  Seemingly unconcerned by this dilemma, she sneaks out of her bedroom heading for a late night beachside dance club where many of her girlfriends are joining other boys from the construction crew, all dressed up for the occasion, with the director capturing the giddy camaraderie of young girls in the throes of love, where this matters above all else, holding each other close, sharing passionate kisses and taking long walks along the beach.  But when she arrives the place is empty, with no boys in sight, where the girls are heartbroken to learn that Souleiman joined a group of others to set sail on a small boat for the shores of Spain in search of jobs.  The film eloquently reveals the stark economic differences between the casual realities of the rich, spoiled by a largesse of riches while consumed by luxury, and the world of the underprivileged who are willing to risk it all and face unspeakable dangers, with the young lovers struggling to find their place in the world.  This economic desperation has plagued young African men for generations, where the rolling sea is a constant presence in the film, as if beckoning a life of freedom and prosperity if crossed, yet young Africans still drown packed together in rickety boats trying to cross the Straits of Gibraltar to Europe every day, which is apparently what happens here, as they receive no word from the men, with reports that their boat capsized leaving them all dead.  This is literally a cry of despair, rooted in the economic desperation of ordinary men seeking a better life, with tragic results.  Stunned by the revelations, Ada is devastated, yet she becomes the central focus of the film, subject to the customs of an Islamic marriage in West Africa, leading to a glamorous wedding celebration that spares no expense, lavishly decorated in an upscale hotel, with all the girls taking selfies on the oversized opulence of the white wedding bed, yet Ada, dressed immaculately in white as well, shows little interest.  While others eat, drink, and get carried away by the lavish décor, she basically sleepwalks through the whole proceedings, showing disinterest, almost as if she’s not there, but her body goes through the motions, but she quickly exits prematurely, as a fire in the hotel (igniting at that wedding bed) sends everyone scrambling out into the street in panic mode.

Ada is initially viewed as an accomplice, with Issa (Amadou Mbow), a young police detective, becoming obsessed with her guilt, believing Souleiman is somehow behind it, with rumors that he returned, reportedly seen by others, but there is no evidence.  Instead Diop starts introducing uncommon aspects to the film, as the detective starts suffering from heat stroke, sweating uncontrollably, barely able to breathe, while the widows of the lost men start showing up on the doorstep of the wealthy construction owner, Mr. Ndiaye (Diankou Sembene), demanding their money, given ghostly configurations, as if visiting from the spirit world, yet their haunting presence spooks the owner, unaware of what to think, caught completely off-guard.  This film pays respect to Islamic customs and beliefs, which includes a local belief in djinn, spirits that can take human form, but they possess unworldly powers.  This love story leads to a police investigation that takes a strange turn, as suddenly those involved start suffering from inexplicable maladies as they pursue the case, veering into the supernatural, succumbing to forces greater than their own, which remain an unexplained mystery that continues throughout the film.  Suffused with melancholy, with most of the scenes shot at night, Diop never loses sight of the prevailing cultural views in Senegal, where Ada remains confined and restricted by a society that limits her freedom, with Omar’s family subjecting her to a “virginity test,” questioning whether she is worthy of their son, making sure she will not bring unwanted “shame” into the family.  While she passes the test, she jettisons Omar and his family arrogance from her life, refusing to have anything to do with him, as her heart still belongs to Suleiman.  But Ada’s grief is not hers alone, as there’s a community of women who are dealing with the same thing, each one abandoned by love and fate.  Diop captures the emotional emptiness that comes with their absence, with swirling green lights passing over Ada’s face from the strobe light at the bar, mixing with Al Qadiri’s ethereal score, while static images are seen of the empty rooms once inhabited by the boys.  Paying particular attention to African youth, Ada mixes with more traditional friends, like the conservative, hijab-wearing Mariama (Mariama Gassama), while employed by a fiercely independent woman, the more liberated Dior (Nicole Sougou), as she ends up working as a barmaid at that beachside nightclub.  Among the more triumphant scenes is a long walk along the beach that Ada takes, evoking genuine sensuality with the poetic rhythms of the ocean, yet confirming her transition to a woman, claiming her own identity, empowered by a newly developing confidence in herself, boldly gazing straight into the camera, fully capable of living her life as she intends, effusing the film with a quietly seductive mystery.    

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