Netflixable? “Atlantics,” a spooky romance/human migration tale from Dakar, Senegal

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Netflix could use some help in its “plot summar blurb” deparment. Because their brief description of “Atlantics” is so far off as to lure viewers in under false pretenses, and scare off the viewers most likely to enjoy it.

It’s a hip, topical and sexy romance with a dose of the supernatural, set in a place few in the West would associate few of those adjectives — Senegal, West Africa. Built on a fated love-affair in a (somewhat) strictly Muslim country, it shows a vibrant capital city, Dakar, where the young like to dance, go to clubs, fall in love with a person of their choosing and dream of a future unencumbered by their present.

Just like young people any place else.

Ada, sensitively played by the radiantly beautiful Mame Bineta Sane, loves Souleiman (Traore). They steal away, any chance they can. And when she returns to her “girls,” a couple of whom wear the product-placement names of Dior and Fanta, they know what she’s been up to.

“Why the smile?” Mairana (Coumba Dieng) wants to know (in the local language Wolof, with English subtitles). “Did you lose your virginity on the way?”

Hey, they’re young, good looking and hormonal. They act like the 18-20 year-olds they are.

But Ada is engaged to Omar (Babacar Sylla), an arranged marriage according to local Muslim custom. Omar is handsome, aloof and well-off, with a car and a job that puts him on a plane every now and them. He’s given her an iPhone.

But the heart and hormones want they want. That iPhone is just another way to be with Souleiman. On the down-low, of course. Her family acts as if they don’t know something’s up, but Mairana does.

“God is testing you! He put Souleiman in your path!”

Not for long, it turns out. He’s one of the legions of laborers working on another modernist high-rise in the coastal city. But the rich developer building it is months behind in paying them. Yes, it happens there, too.

Souleiman and his mates resolve to sail off, up the coast to Spain, to try their in the EU. Ada is bereft, with a wedding day marching towards her, pressure from friends and family to marry and get pregnant “before (Omar) takes a second wife!” Her Romeo has gone to sea. Who will save her, now?

That’s when the ghosts start showing up. That’s when things start to “spontaneously combust.”  

French actress-turned-director and co-writer Mati Diop makes her feature debut with “Atlantics,” a langorous and at times luxe affair that uses its stately (ok, slow) pace and many many MANY shots of the tranquil or turbulent sea to suggest how serious and meaningful it all is.

I don’t think she makes that case. But in showing us another of an Afro-Islamic country rarely seen on film, she has done a great disservice. And in her depiction of the very “natural” supernatural, she gives “Atlantics” righteously chilling overtones.

The “ghosts” are white-eyed avengers straight out of Greek tragedy, ad hoc assemblies of women out to right the wrongs of the developer, the arranged marriage, all of it.

The fires even get the interest of an arson investigator. How are the vengeful harpies with the white eyes going to take that?

Sane’s Ada is not overtly willful, and she gets across her youthful impulsiveness, quiet desperation and silent suffering. She can’t really confide in anyone, with Souleiman away. But her friends all know what she’s going through and take sides. Sane is a terrific, understated “re-actor,” letting Ada reflect the pressures and wishes of whoever she confronts — friend, family or the cop wondering about these fires.

Still, lovely as it often is, “Atlantics” isn’t as deep as it wants to come off and isn’t anybody’s idea of a great film. But in the world it depicts and the vivid characters inhabiting it, it is engaging, informative and absolutely worth your while — perfectly Netflixable.

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MPAA Rating: TV-14, sex, some frightening images

Cast: Mame Bineta Sane, Traore, Babacar Sylla and Diankou Sembene

Credits: Directed by Mati Diop, script by Olivier Demangel. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:46

 

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