Toward the end of Senegalese romantic drama Atlantics, 17-year-old Ada says, "some memories are omens," over a shot of the ocean for which the film is named. The water is as much a character in the film as any person, working as a symbol of hope, comfort, fear, and carrier of the omens Ada references. Atlantics (streaming on Netflix), by Senegalese-French director Mati Diop, is a story about the migration crisis, specifically the burdens on those left behind, but it's also about a broader sense of economic inequality.
Ada (Mama Sané) lives in a suburb of Dakar and loves Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a construction worker. They sneak off together to make out on the beach and stare longingly at the waves, and each other. But they both have heavier worries hanging over their heads; Souleiman works for a construction company building a massive luxury tower in the city, and the workers haven't been paid in four months, while Ada is arranged to marry a wealthy, passionless man. One night, when Ada goes to meet Souleiman at the local ocean-side club, he doesn't show. Neither do any of his friends. The club is filled with despondent women crying under the club lights. All the men from the construction company left without notice, taking a boat out to sea to find another life abroad, leaving behind distraught girlfriends, sisters, and mothers.
Ada moves through life like a ghost. She sleeps all the time, she doesn't eat, and when she talks to her fiancé on the phone, it sounds like she's hearing bad news from a doctor. It’s a lovesickness for the ages. On her wedding day, Ada cries on the roof while a party goes on in her new husband’s house below, until it is interrupted by a sudden fire in her new bedroom. Local police launch an investigation into how the fire began, and Souleiman becomes the number one suspect, and something of an obsession of detective Issa (Amadou Mbow). He thinks Ada is hiding Souleiman, and, Ada, who tells Issa she knows nothing, can only dream of such a scenario.
From here, the movie twists into something stranger and sadder than a typical romance drama. The genre veers into horror and magical realism, just enough to scare the right people. Souleiman and his sea mates do return, but are unrecognizable from when they left (I’m being vague for your own good). Ada, her friends, and the detective are left trying to put together the pieces, but the pieces look different in every light.
The haunting grief permeating the movie is supported by a ghostly soundtrack by electronic artist Fatima Al Qadiri, matched with equally beautiful and eerie shots of the ocean (at dawn, at dusk, in the middle of a storm). Diop treats all the shots in the movie with care, letting the camera linger on a scene after it's served its purpose, just to let us sit in its world a little longer.
The obvious antidote to fire is water, but with the recurring arson in Atlantics — first on Ada's wedding night, then in the home of the wealthy developer withholding payments from the men who left — fire is a tool of revenge from those who have been hurt by the water. Like the insurmountable economic problems facing the workers in Dakar, the water is never-ending. It's dangerous for those who go out to sea, not knowing what's on the other side, but they unknowingly leave behind a very palpable pain on land for their loved ones.