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by Jay Seaver

"One and a half nifty ghost stories."
4 stars

It's a truism that small films like "Atlantics" focus on characters and performances more than their larger brethren, but that's almost literally the case in the early going, as every establishing shot of the town is a foggy gray while close-ups of the actors are suddenly bright and sharp. It's a level of focus that the cast earns, making things work even when it sometimes seems like filmmaker Mati Diop could do more with her ghost stories.

It starts at a construction site outside Dakar; Muejiza Tower is slated to be luxurious and full of amenities, but the workers haven't been paid in months, and leader Cheikh (Abdou Balde) is starting to make demands. Dejected, worker Souleiman Fall (Ibrahima Traoré) makes his way home, although his spirit lifts when he sees girlfriend Ada Niang (Mama Sane). They spend the afternoon together, but somewhat furtively, as she is meant to be married to well-to-do Omar Liang (Babacar Sylla) in ten days, and all of her friends from religious Mariama (Ndeye Fama Dia) to fun-loving Fanta (Amina Kane) tell her she shouldn't ruin a good thing - though, surprisingly, practical Dior (Nicole Sougou) isn't quite so sure. It may be moot, though, as Cheikh, Souleiman, and the rest of the guys take a boat to Spain to seek their fortune. The boat disappears, but on the night of Ada's wedding, Mariama claims to see Souleiman before a strange fire destroys the wedding bed, leading to an arson investigation led by Inspector Issa Diop (Amadou Mbow) - and the developer of the tower, Mr. N'Diaye (Diankou Sembene) finds himself with unusual visitors.

Ghosts make great metaphors, but Diop and her co-writer Olivier Demangel know that life is not a perfect series of one-to-one matches, so there's something enjoyably messy about the way they set this ghost story up. There's something oddly traditional about the spirits possessing the bodies of the town's young women to haunt N'Diaye; it can read as both the men atoning for their failure to provide for their wives and daughters (a specific complaint Cheikh makes to the site manager at the start) or them taking matters into their own hands when the men are wiped out. Diop stages these scenes with simple but spooky methods, the white contacts to indicate possession communicating the situation quickly while other things are more subtle: Silent women cutting across streets with purpose or occupying N'Diye's house with the sort of stillness that indicates quivering rage, like they're past human niceties but haven't forgotten their old lives.

Dior and Ada aren't possessed, though; Dior, arguably, is too self-sufficient (even if the boys are half the customers at her bar) and the filmmakers have something different in mind for Ada. If a ghost is a memory given the ability to act, hers is pulling her away from Omar. Souleiman was too loving a man to insist she pine forever for the dead, but the memory of him is a good contrast to Omar, whose family wants to make sure she's the exact sort of beautiful asset she appears to be. The filmmakers don't build a whole lot of mystery around how he's making contact with Ada, but there's a certain general sense to it, as Issa's focus on Ada in his investigation seems designed to keep her from putting Souleiman entirely behind her.

It means that Ada spends a lot of time protesting that she doesn't know anything, but Mama Sane gets quite a bit out of what could seem like a passive role. There's still a fair amount of impulsive teenager to Ada, a confidence that comes with understanding what her good looks can get her tempered by the right amounts of innocence and maturity. Sane and Diop let the audience see her learn how to value herself without it being entirely selfish, and go through mourning and accepting the loss of Souleiman despite not having scenes that announce themselves as being built around that. Meanwhile, her pairings with Ibrahima Traoré and Amadou Mbow highlight different strains of masculinity - Traoré's Souleiman is simple and loving and maybe a little insecure, while Mbow's Issa is smart and professional and maybe too proud, both easy to find appealing for different reasons, and as such making Mbow highlight subtle but meaningful differences later on in the movie.

Diop and her team make it a real pleasure to watch, as well. She and cinematographer Claire Mathon use the fog that comes from being near the sea well, allowing the larger world to be fuzzy and indistinct while the immediate situation is sharp and clear. She lets the audience feel the differences in class without having to exaggerate them, and has a way of introducing her broader audience in France and elsewhere to the way things are different and the same in Senegal without going out of her way or making it the point of the whole thing. I do wonder a bit if she perhaps understates the amount of suspicion or disbelief the paranormal would elicit, although it beats bringing what's going on to a halt.

"Atlantics" is sometimes a little too cavalier with how it wraps things up, like it might have benefitted from just being one ghost story rather than two. Still, those two ghost stories are each good in their own right, and Sane in particular is a kind of terrific discovery.

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originally posted: 01/12/20 09:33:06
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Directed by
  Mati Diop

Written by
  Mati Diop
  Olivier Demangel

  Mama Sane
  Amadou Mbow
  Ibrahima Traoré
  Nicole Sougou
  Amina Kane

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