The French-Senegalese director Mati Diop's debut film Atlantics is one of the more original and surprising films of the year. Though it begins as a conventional third-world realist drama — construction workers in Dakar, Senegal, without wages for months, flee by boat to Spain to seek a better life — the film transforms midway into a kind of surrealist thriller, with elements of both police procedurals and ghost stories, all to convey the desperation, uncertainty and pain of losing loved ones at sea.
Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) is among the construction workers in the opening scene. Crews have been building a new luxury hotel on Dakar's Atlantic coast. After he returns home without pay, he meets his girlfriend, Ada (Mama Sane) in an abandoned building, where they affirm their affection for each other. Ada, though, is betrothed to another, a handsome man named Omar from a wealthy Muslim family. The film seems to have the contours, in fact, of a contemporary African Romeo & Juliet.
But late that night, Ada sneaks out to see Souleiman at the local seaside club and learns that "the boys" have gone, left by boat. Despondently, and at the urging of her family and friends, Ada goes through with her engagement to Omar.
On the wedding night, as Ada laments what is destined to be a loveless marriage, the film begins to change. A fire at Omar's house appears to have spontaneously combusted in the nuptial bed, and police are called. The young local inspector, Issa (Amadou Mbow), is convinced that Souleiman has returned (or maybe never left) and started the fire in a vengeful wrath. But Ada insists that Souleiman has indeed gone. Slowly, as an inexplicable sickness overtakes multiple members of the community, Issa and Ada both begin to discover what really happened that night and what really happened on the ocean.
Like Fernando Meirelles' 2002 film, City of God, which told an unforgettable story of friendship and crime in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Atlantics tells an urgent story that brings to life a world city. Dakar's dusty roads, concrete structures and the perpetual sound of the Atlantic Ocean's waves, to say nothing of its vastness, are all on display.
Though the film is not scary per se, there are moments of profound disquiet. I won't spoil the film's second half, but the magical-realist elements occur, remarkably, without a significant tonal shift. They are integrated seamlessly into the reality of Dakar, and the tragedies of forced migration. The visuals of the final scenes, amidst the strobe lights and mirrors of the club, are both understated and ingenious.
Atlantics is now streaming on Netflix and screens at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque Thursday, Dec. 12, at 8:35 p.m. and Friday, Dec. 13, at 7 p.m.