The Cine Atlântico was the vision of Portuguese architects operating in the late colonial period. Uncertain of Angola's future as a result of independence movements that began to grow in the 1950s, the leadership of Portugal decided to attempt to solidify its hold by melding with local populations throughout its colonies, but "melding" was an arbitrary idea. Although the first movie house was built in the 1930s, for example, segregation remained the norm under Portuguese rule.
The Cine Atlântico--formerly named Cine Império--was built in 1963, a period when Angolans realized their transition to independence was not going to follow the smooth path of other African nations. The movie house followed the open-air cinema (cine esplanandas) design originated by Portuguese-born architect Francisco Castro Rodrigues, a graduate of the Escola Superior de Belas-Artes de Lisboa. Rodrigues moved to Angola to escape the dictatorial regime of António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, becoming the city architect for Lobito, a coastal town in central Angola near Benguela. There he created the now-derelict Cine-Flamingo (1963) and the Cine-Baía. Rodrigues, taking into account the tropical environment and the tastes of Angola's wealthy population, created a structural type that was both opulent and functional. Unlike the drive-ins theaters, these had roofs and stage seating, an arrangement that was uncommon internationally.
The Cine Atlântico itself was commissioned by the film company Angola Filmes and designed beginning in 1963 by the architect António Ribeiro dos Santos with adjustments by the engineer Eduardo Paulino. Ribeiro dos Santos was also Portuguese-trained, The style of the Cine Atlântico melds Brazilian, Portuguese, and Angolan architectural elements, demonstrating strong influences from the Brazilian tropical architecture of Oscar Neimeyer, with its use of reinforced concrete and curvilinear forms. The geometric points of the supports, the circular stone mosaic pavement in front of the theater (a feature seen in both Brazil and Portugal) and the use of concrete provide a sense of belonging to the metropolitan Lusophone world, as well as the international stage, through the illusion of urban modernism.
Officially opening in 1966 with a showing of My Fair Lady, audiences were treated to garden views on both sides of the theater, the sights of the central district of the city, and breezes from the sea. Originally intended for a site on the Bay of Luanda, Cine Atlântico was instead built in the wealthy Villa Alice district. Catering to a rich clientele, the theater included paintings by Albano Neves e Sousa, a Cubist-influenced artist who grew up in Angola but attended the Escola de Belas Artes do Porto in northern Portugal, and sculptures by António Vidigal.
The theater is both a cinema and auditorium holding 1,489 seats. To create a theater that both had proper ventilation in the heat and protection from rain, Dos Santos and Paulino used concrete. They created a structure with open sides and an overhead canopy supported by steel suspension cables that surround the theater's roof. The grading of the three levels allows both light and air to travel through the center of the cinema.
Equipped with a restaurant and bar area, the cinema was meant for socializing and showing nighttime movies. It was also often used for rock music concerts until independence and was filled with youth. After Angola's civil war commenced in the 1970s, the theater saw a loss in attendance.
Today the theater still shows movies and additionally hosts packed cultural events and concerts. The Luanda International Film Festival is held at the cinema annually.