Locarno 2021 review: Atlas (Niccolò Castelli)

Allegra is a young woman whose miserable plight betrays her name, which would normally evoke a sense of joyfulness and exuberance; the opposite of what she has experienced in recent years, after being a victim of a terrorist attack that left her injured and robbed her of one of her closest friends. This is the foundation for Atlas, the heartbreaking elegy to a generation lost to the violence caused by others based on extremist values. The drama, which takes the form of a series of non-linear moments in the life of the main character, sees director Niccolò Castelli taking us on a journey into Allegra’s struggles to assimilate back into society while being weighed down by the harrowing memories of the past that haunt her every waking moment. It is an effective and powerful portrayal of life after an unprecedented event, told with both heart-wrenching emotion and brutal honesty. Castelli is not interested in anything other than the most profound demonstrations of what life would be like for someone in such a situation – and his earnest candour, combined with the unflinching authenticity of the story and its execution, makes Atlas an impactful drama that carries the weight of a world plunged into fear as a result of the reckless actions of others.

Atlas orbits almost entirely around the performance given by Matilda De Angelis, the promising young actress who plays Allegra. She is a revelation in the film, with her ability to play both sides of the character – her youthful happiness prior to the attack and her more shattered existence in the days that followed – being carefully calibrated and absolutely genuine. The film functions as a sensitive and measured portrait of a fragile young woman who is broken – spiritually, emotionally, and physically – and how she handles the challenges of a life that has been overtaken by frequent reminders of a traumatic incident that never quite leaves her, embedded indelibly within her soul. Helmi Dridi plays a young Muslim immigrant who fled his home country, and serves as someone who manages to penetrate this young woman’s soul. He shows her the reality of the situation she has been struggling to understand, particularly in a moment towards the end of the film where he reveals almost identical physical markings (implied to have been caused by a similar incident), accompanied by the achingly beautiful claim that he “knows [her] scars”. As a character-based drama, Atlas is a profoundly moving piece of narrative storytelling that gives us haunting but effective insights into the lives of these individuals.

As Atlas progresses and we learn more about Allegra, the intentions become clearer for telling this story. The actual attack is mainly confined to allusions throughout most of the film, and we only witness the event late in the story. And while it is stark and brutal, it refuses to exist as a way of inspiring fear in the viewer. Instead it functions as a way of exploring the aftermath and the psychological toll it can have on someone who experienced something so horrifying. Less about actual terrorism, and more about looking for hope in a world obscured by trauma and the memories associated with it, Castelli’s film is a poignant exploration of one woman’s journey through a life that has lost a lot of the meaning she previously held as sacred. Allegra’s existence is defined as being caught between life and death, her survivor’s remorse intermingling with the long-term pain that has lingered on and caused her continuous agony. She may seek physical therapy to heal her body, but her emotional recovery is far more difficult, and the director’s intimate portrayal of her journey in both regards is incredibly poignant and makes for a heartbreaking yet captivating portrait of trauma.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a theme that has been explored many times in every conceivable artistic medium, particularly in recent decades, where we have grown unfortunately accustomed to large-scale global events that leave scars on our entire culture. Functioning as one of the most harrowing depictions of the after-effects of such an event, Atlas is an astonishing film filled with unforgettable imagery, as beautiful as it is haunting. A disquieting, character-driven drama that avoids overwrought sentimentality in favour of hard-hitting illustrations of the experience of living with PTSD, the film is not afraid of taking some risks. It filters very deep and heavy conversations through the lens of a complex protagonist, whose life after the attack sees her running the gamut of emotions, from fury to depression, and ultimately acceptance of reality. Atlas demonstrates that each one of us has a story to tell, something that defines us, whether positive or negative – and eventually we should find someone willing to listen, which can ultimately change the way we understand our own memories, especially in situations where we find similarities in the lives and experiences of others.