In Atlantics, the Cannes Grand Prix–winning film by the French-Senegalese director Mati Diop, the water is both a threat and a source of comfort. With soft camerawork and pointed dialogue, Diop casts a shadow over the sea and all its possibilities. In a scene near the movie’s end, the dusky-pink sky hangs over a long shot of ocean waves as one of the protagonists whispers a mysterious voice-over to the lover he was forced to leave behind: I felt your weeping dragging me to shore.
A drama of palpable yearning and astonishing grace, Atlantics follows Ada, a 17-year-old girl living in the suburbs of the Senegalese capital of Dakar. Though she’s set to marry a rich young man named Omar, Ada is in love with Souleiman, a poor construction worker. In the opening scenes, Souleiman and his fellow laborers, who haven’t been paid for the months they’ve spent building a futuristic tower, decide to set sail for Europe in search of other work. But Souleiman never abandons Ada. Diop renders their relationship, along with the many barriers they face, with compassion and unlikely mysticism. Crucially, Atlantics upends the stark realism with which many migrant narratives are told: There is no documentary footage spliced in, no ominous cuts to the strife that awaits Souleiman and the other men in Europe. The result is a transportive love story with an undercurrent of social critique that manages to be at once haunting and hopeful.
The Cannes prizewinner joins the Nigerian drama Lionheart and the Malawian biopic The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind in Netflix’s ever-expanding slate of African films. (Atlantics will open in select theaters starting Friday, before landing on Netflix on November 29.) With dialogue in Wolof and French, the movie represents a milestone for Cannes: Diop is the first black woman director to compete at the festival, and Atlantics is her first feature. The filmmaker, who wrote the screenplay with Olivier Demangel, also happens to be the niece of the late Senegalese cinema legend Djibril Diop Mambéty. Fittingly, she has spent much time considering the distortion of the continent in images that proliferate through Hollywood and in European film. “As a mixed girl, born in Paris but also coming from Senegal, I’m very aware of how Africa was dispossessed of her own story, image, representation,” she told Vulture recently. “There’s a permanent tension between how I think Africa is and should be represented and how I know it’s seen from the exterior.”