The Dakar of Mati Diop’s Atlantics is a city in flux. At its outskirts, cattle still roam patches of arid land. Looming in the background, however, are rising buildings of steel and glass, a new metropolis under construction everywhere you look. Scores of men fill scaffolds on riding towers, and things are being assembled so quickly that we even see an unfinished office building, only partially encased in glass, being vacuumed by a worker. The new is rapidly displacing the old, and with it the tacit spread of globalization homogenizes another area. Yet Diop’s feature debut delves into the ambiguity of some customs being made obsolete, or at least warped and updated by modern life.

In particular, the film focuses on the romance between two young people, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) and Souleimain (Ibrahima Traoré). Souleiman, a construction worker, meets Ada after work, and the sweetness of their relationships is communicated in shots where the two stand on either side of a railroad as a train passes, the blurred shape hurtling past leaving gaps open just long enough to capture the insouciant glances of the girl and boy. Kissing in derelict buildings and darting around town, the pair are the portrait of young love. The only problem is the inconvenient truth that Ada is already betrothed to another, Omar (Babacar Sylla), the son of a wealthy family who spends most of his time abroad. That Ada does not love her fiancé is wholly irrelevant to her own family, who view the marriage as financial security that overrides all other concerns. The pressures of traditional arranged marriage blend with aspirational consumerism as both Ada’s family and friends fawn over Omar’s wealth. As Ada prepares for her wedding ceremony, her pals comb over her future bedroom, marveling at its luxury. Of them, only Mariama (Mariama Gassama) recognizes the misery in Ada’s face, urging the girl not to go through with the wedding if she truly can’t while also warning her that it will mean alienation from everyone.

The combination of old and new repressions at play in Ada’s life are reflective of larger overlaps between dead-end traditionalism and dehumanizing globalization that Diop alludes to elsewhere. She most visibly stresses changing times in the contrast between Omar, who lives abroad as a sign of his wealth, and Souleiman, who ends up on a ship bound for Spain in hopes of finding paying work after he and coworkers grow weary of going months without being compensated for their labor. The men leave so suddenly that the film only addresses their departure by their absence, first in nightclubs where women arrive only to find that they are the sole clientele and end up dourly milling about, then in bedrooms with empty beds and abandoned knickknacks such as a bottle of cologne. It’s the film’s most haunting sequence, as if half of the people in Ada’s life abruptly vanished overnight.

The plot takes a left turn on Ada’s wedding day when she receives a miraculous intervention in the form of a fire that breaks out in Omar’s home, temporarily sidelining the nuptials. Immediately, though, police detective Issa (Amadou Mbow) launches an investigation into the minor fire with such frenzy that you’d think he were attempting to bust a terrorist cell. As gossipers flock to the cop, Issa immediately fingers Souleiman as a suspect, despite the man being at sea, and he also interrogates and even briefly jails the girl for not cooperating with his insanely dogged quest to examine her virtue. The legal pressure on Ada, as well as her parents demanding she take a humiliating virginity test that ends with the doctor telling her mother, “Congratulations, madam, your daughter is a virgin,” compounds the young woman’s misery with the misogyny still prevalent in society.

The emphasis that others place on Ada’s ostensible purity and the commodified role that she plays as an offered bride certainly fit within the conflict rending Ada from her true love, but Diop introduces this subplot, quickly wrings it for desired effect, then moves on. This trait becomes especially dominant in the film’s back half as the narrative heads in strange, unreal directions, with ghost and zombie imagery, which makes the increasing reliance on bluntly articulated themes clash with the ever more abstract imagery. The use of horror imagery to connote the grim fates of black people under the weight of colonial and postcolonial history is nothing new (this year alone it also factors into Bertrand Bonello’s ambiguous Zombi Child), but Diop fails to use it to tie together her characters’ current predicament with the deeper history of cultural exploitation. Instead, she leaves it to the viewer bring all such connotations to bear on the material to give it a depth it doesn’t quite have. Intended as a kind of Romeo and Juliet foregrounded against a shifting Senegal, Atlantics loses the plot when it pivots to something closer to a spectral Odyssey, setting up an obvious twist that complicates neither the story nor the thematic undercurrents. It undercuts the frequently poetic touches that make the film so captivating at the start. Diop’s feature debut is promising, and occasionally even flirts with greatness, but its awkward last act transition from tactile frustration to pure abstract metaphor robs the film of the balance it confidently achieves before the story overrides the atmosphere.

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