After seeing this movie, Judge Joe Armenio plans to avoid banks next time he's in Dakar.
"In this city only the crooks live well."
Mandabi (1968) is one of two films by Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (born 1923) that have been released recently by New Yorker Films; I've already reviewed Xala (1975). Mandabi, which translates as The Money Order, is about a poor man in Dakar (Ibrahim, played by Makhouredia Gueye) who receives a money order from his nephew in France and experiences every stage of postcolonialist hell in attempting to cash it. Like Xala, it's a comedy, if a dark and subtle one, which uses the frustrations of a single man to illustrate the dysfunctions in Senegalese society. Sembene's style is patient and slow, using details of daily life to build characterizations and present a vivid portrait of life in Dakar.
We suspect from the beginning that Ibrahim's money order will cause nothing but trouble. "Do you want to kill us with hope?," his wife tells the messenger who brings it. Like many of Sembene's men, Ibrahim is less discerning than the women in his life, and also something of a petty tyrant. Sembene shows us several scenes in which his wives pamper and cater to him, ministrations to which he responds with a blustery sense of entitlement. This seems like both a criticism of traditional African patriarchy and an illustration of the frustrated ways in which African men assert their masculinity when unable to provide for their families (Ibrahim hasn't worked for years).
Ibrahim sets out to cash his money order, but immediately runs into bureaucratic obstacles: he needs an ID card, and to get an ID card he needs a birth certificate, which requires documentation he doesn't have, and so on. Meanwhile, Ibrahim's wives, unable to resist the lure of consumer goods, have begun to spend the money they don't have yet. Word of his windfall has also gotten out; neighbors and family clamor for help, and the soft-hearted Ibrahim is unable to turn down their requests. Here, I think, is Sembene's comment on the disasters inherent in the clash between hard-headed, cash-based individualism and older, communalist notions; Ibrahim can't resist helping others, even when he knows that society has changed so fundamentally that no one is likely to help him in return.
I've read some reviews which describe these early Sembene films as cinematically "crude," mostly because they were shot on 16mm and feature less than virtuosic acting. These criticisms ignore Sembene's narrative and ideological sophistication. He lets his scenes play out patiently, gradually producing a portrait of a city defined by cash and its absence; everyone is in debt to someone else, robbing Peter to pay Paul, picking pockets, pulling some scam on one's fellow citizens in a desperate attempt to remain solvent. Although these is no explicit colonial presence, as there is in Xala, this is an inherently anticolonialist position: who brought the cash nexus and modern bureaucracy to Africa but the Europeans? Sembene's great talent as a filmmaker lies in conveying these ideas through action rather than speeches. There's no theorizing in the film, and no proposal of solutions to these problems; every action, however altruistic, is fraught with potential complications. The film's most deeply ironic scene features Ibrahim's nephew in France, who has made a brave and difficult journey in search of work and dignity, prays regularly, wants to help his family back home, and is unaware of the havoc his charitable act is causing.
Things ultimately become so desperate for Ibrahim that his wives (showing the feminine prescience and ingenuity of which Sembene is so fond) hatch a scheme to pretend that he has been robbed, in order to stop the constant flow of requests for money and food. Ibrahim then turns to a prosperous nephew to help him cash the money order and, of course, is swindled. The postcolonial elite fare no better here than they do in Xala, although they play a lesser role; claims of national unity, Sembene is saying, are empty, hiding the fact of a society in which every man is out for himself. It's to his credit that he's able to craft a story which exposes the colonial roots of corruption but doesn't let Africans off the hook. The film seethes with anger at the world's exploitation of Africa, and at those Africans who are unable to transcend exploitation and merely reproduce it.
New Yorker's DVD presentation is pretty slapdash, as there are no extras at all. The full-frame transfer preserves the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio; the film never looked very glamorous to start with, but the print used shows considerable signs of wear. Despite this shoddy treatment, both Xala and Mandabi certainly remain worth seeing, especially for art-film enthusiasts and those with an interest in Africa. I'd recommend that the viewer start with Xala, which is a richer and more ambitious film, with a wider scope and a more compelling central character. Mandabi is a smaller and slighter movie, but still one which has important things to say about the dilemma of postcolonial Africa.
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