Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, 2019)

Stories about migration are not just about those who leave—the political or economic refugees whose journeys fill the news—but also about those who stay behind. Two strikingly beautiful films showing in the 57th New York Film Festival, Mati Diop’s Atlantics (Atlantique) and Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, focus on women left alone when men cross the sea to find work, and the lives that they make in places haunted by loss.

From its opening moments, Atlantics inhabits a world at once grittily real and dreamily strange. Wind-blown dust spreads a luminous veil over the alleys, shanties, and city lights of Dakar, Senegal. The ocean shines through a silvery haze, its white breakers rolling in hypnotically, its white noise ever-present under the sounds of daily life. Diop’s debut feature, which was also the first film by a black female director to compete for the Palme d’Or in Cannes (where it won the Grand Prix), blends a supernatural love story with a document of all-too-common injustice. The film balances its poetic images and trance-like mood with a tactile, visceral evocation of life—of heat that thickens the air, the salt of sweat and sea-spray, the chaotic energy of city streets, the closeness of a warm night or the skin of a beloved.

At the center of the film is Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young woman living in the suburbs of Dakar. Like the heroine of a fairy tale, Ada is engaged to a wealthy man, Omar (Babacar Sylla), but loves a poor one, the handsome Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore). Caught between a conservative Muslim family and a group of free-spirited girls (labeled “those sluts” by her more traditional friends), Ada is somewhat unformed, dissatisfied but drifting along a path of obedience to expectations. Souleiman works at the construction site of a massive glass tower that looms like a shimmering mirage over the low-slung cityscape (the tower was digitally added to shots, and its slightly unreal look adds to its wraith-like presence). He and his fellow workers have not been paid in four months, and when their protests prove futile, the young men pile into a boat and set out for Spain; soon, the tide brings in rumors that they have drowned. The grief-stricken Ada numbly goes along with preparations for her marriage, accepting the gift of a shell-pink iPhone from her fiancé as they lounge beside an infinity pool at a swanky beach club.

Then strange things start happening. On her wedding night a mysterious fire breaks out, scorching a hole in the gaudy, rococo white nuptial bed, and someone reports seeing Souleiman at the house. A young police detective, Issa (Amadou Mbow), obsessively pursues the case, but suffers mysterious spells in which he overheats and passes out. Ada gets a text message apparently from Souleiman, and the boss of the construction project receives menacing visits from women with blank, cloudy eyes who demand money. Open-ended mysteries that withhold resolution have become almost de rigueur in art cinema, so it comes as something of a surprise that Atlantics leaves us in no doubt about what happened to the young migrant men, or about the nature of the eerie goings-on. In the end, the film emphatically supplies resolution—you might even call it wish fulfillment, but the fantasy of the oppressed exacting retribution from the powerful is moving precisely because it is so poignantly a fantasy, like the dream of love transcending death, invoked here with unabashed romanticism. But the true climax of the film is not supernatural; it is a shot of Ada gazing into the camera, breathtaking not just in her beauty but in her confidence and wholeness, calmly claiming her identity and her future.

Atlantics draws power both from its wholehearted embrace of storytelling and the fluency with which it translates emotion into images. The swirling green lights in a bar playing over Ada’s face create a submarine feel that conjures her shipwrecked lover. Static shots of the boys’ empty rooms—mattresses on the floor covered in floral sheets, sunlight pooling around bottles of cheap cologne—make their absence palpable. Absence is also at the core of the somber, haunting Vitalina Varela, whose title character arrives in Portugal from Cape Verde after the death of her husband and takes up residence in his house. The film becomes a one-sided dialogue between Vitalina and the man who abandoned her decades earlier, leaving without saying goodbye (as Souleiman does in Atlantics) to join a community of Cape Verdean immigrants on the outskirts of Lisbon.

With its narrow walled alleys and crumbling concrete shacks, this neighborhood appears as a netherworld, its inhabitants so exhausted by poverty and weighted down by speechless grief that they move like the undead. There is a constant off-screen murmur of voices, music, dogs barking, suggesting life going on behind the thick, cold walls, but little activity is ever seen. Scenes are carved out of blackness by raking light, saturated with the unearthly intensity of Caravaggio paintings. The piercing beauty of the compositions sustains attention, despite a mood and pace that are literally funereal—the film both starts and ends at a graveyard. The constantly encroaching darkness and cave-like interiors create a feeling of being buried, but towards the end the film fleetingly opens out into space and light, both in flashbacks of Cape Verde and in the present, and these moments bring immense relief.

“Here there is only bitterness,” Vitalina says of Portugal, addressing her husband. “Here we are nobody.” But she is very much somebody: Varela, a nonprofessional actor who gives her name to the character she plays, is a monumental presence. (She previously appeared in Costa’s 2014 film Horse Money, and the present film is based on her own story.) As she reproaches her dead husband for his failings, unpacking memories and unresolved feelings of resentment and yearning, she has a force as elemental and incontestable as gravity. In long, long close-ups her face is like a well, with unfathomable depths of pain, anger, and strength beneath its stillness.

Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, 2019)

Stories about migration are about the costs of mobility, what is lost by leaving home to seek a better life. While the movement of people across seas and borders dominates 21st-century headlines and dramas, Martin Eden is about the very 20th-century theme of class mobility and its hazards. Martin (Luca Marinelli) is a young working-class man who went to sea at age 11. A chance encounter brings him into the orbit of the wealthy, cultured Orsini family; smitten with the angelic Elena (Jessica Cressy), who gently corrects his grammar, he conceives a passion to educate himself, and then to become a writer. Hot-tempered and uncompromising, he struggles through rejection by publishers and backbreaking manual labor before achieving success that proves toxic and disabling.

Jack London’s 1909 novel is transported from California to Naples in Pietro Marcello’s full-blooded, ambitious film adaptation. Intriguingly but sometimes distractingly, the film never settles on a time period; indeed, different characters appear to be inhabiting different eras at the same time. For the Orsinis, it is a genteel late-Edwardian age; Elena wears long skirts and high-necked blouses, and the family sits down to formal dinners. Martin’s engagement with the writings of Herbert Spencer (who saw evolution as the guiding principle of life and coined the term “survival of the fittest”) and the rise of a socialist labor movement likewise suggest the early 20th century, but elsewhere the cars, televisions, and casual clothes, as well as the pop music on the soundtrack, evoke a nonspecific span of the mid-to-late 20th century. (When, at the end, a man rushes past announcing that war has been declared, one has to wonder: which war?) Throughout the movie, clips of what appear to be archival film footage—or, at times, new footage shot in tinted black-and-white—are interpolated without explanation, like involuntary visions. They expand the story into a kaleidoscopic historical fantasia that seems possessed by the ghosts of Italian cinema. Are these memories? Scenes from Martin’s stories? Or chunks of history drifting through the narrative?

Martin first aspires to become one of those “eyes through which the world sees itself,” but he is constitutionally at odds with the world, a man fueled by protest, resistance, and desire who cannot cope with success and acceptance. (London, himself a committed socialist, intended the book as a critique of Spencerian or Nietzschean individualism, which ultimately destroys the protagonist.) What holds the film together, above all, is the enormously charismatic performance by Luca Marinelli. Both physically and emotionally he seems slightly larger than life, a tall, clumsily powerful man with pale flame-blue eyes and a magnificent roman nose; even when the character gets lost in a thicket of ideas, we never doubt Martin’s somewhat muddled ardor or his ornery determination. He is a restless wanderer, someone who can never be at home. Though he starts the film on a docked boat, this onetime sailor never looks to the sea until the final scene, when he swims off towards the horizon. London’s Martin Eden commits suicide, but the film is more ambiguous, leaving his fate open; the ocean promises both freedom and oblivion, escape and eternal return.

Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy, and has written for The Criterion Collection and elsewhere. Phantom Light is her regular column for Film Comment.