Altantics isn’t billed as a ghost story, but the lingering presence of spirits can be felt throughout its run time. They haunt the film, like sailors lost at sea. Mati Diop’s debut feature — and the first film by a black woman to be selected for the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival — is a quietly haunting work of cinema with magic coursing through its veins. Diop unites the fantastical with the mundane to create a brilliant piece of social commentary that mixes with a potent, tragic love story, to become a truly special creation.

Ada (Mame Bineta Sage) is a young woman living in the city of Dakar with her family. Marriage looms in the distance with a wealthy business man, Omar (Babacar Sylla). Despite his riches, her heart belongs to Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a lowly construction worker who is part of a crew involved in building a futuristic hotel tower that rises above the city, like a stairway to the heavens. There’s a significant problem, however: the construction crew hasn’t been paid their wages in four months. One night, Souleiman and his fellow coworkers sail out on the Atlantic in search of a better job. Tragedy strikes, and their boat capsizes. Ada is distraught; but on her wedding night, someone sets fire to the wedding bed… and Souleiman is rumored to have been spotted around town.

What happens beyond this would spoil the wondrous surprises Diop has in store for any unsuspecting viewer. Needless to say, Ada’s personal story of growth and her desire to find love on her own, without the influence of her parents and the demands of Dakar society, is a richly rewarding experience. Diop’s command of the camera is masterful; as if Beau Travail‘s acclaimed ending was given a modern face-lift. The story manages to handle so many topics at once, ranging from prejudice against women to the corrupting influences of capitalism, that it seems like a magic trick on Diop’s part. Fantasy and reality collides in this bewitching cinematic brew that demands your attention!

Atlantics screened at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival. The film will hit select cinemas on November 15th, and will start streaming on Netflix on November 29th.

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