Directed by Ousmane Sembène. Starring Marie-Augustine Diatta, Moustapha Diop, Ndiawar Diop, Thierno Ndiaye, Mame Ndoumbr Diop. (1992, NR, 115 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 15, 1994
Africa's best-known filmmaker, Ousmane Sembène, made Guelwaar in 1992 in his native Senegal in French and Wolof. This comedy of errors is also a piercing cultural commentary that examines large issues like the indignity of foreign aid and smaller issues like human vanity and pride. It satirizes African red tape and bureaucracy and casts a gently probing eye toward squabbling tribal differences and the uneasy blend of native customs and cultural insinuations. The story begins with the news that the patriarch Guelwaar (translated as "Noble One") has died. When his Roman Catholic family gathers to bury him, they discover that his corpse has vanished from the morgue. Following a trail of mix-ups, they learn that the body has mistakenly been buried in a Muslim cemetery and that news incites age-old religious tensions on both sides. Before the whole thing is through, religious leaders, police and government authorities are all brought in to further inflame and rectify the matter. But during the course of this comedy, Guelwaar becomes something of a murder mystery, too. Through flashbacks and visual asides, we gradually learn many things about the character of Guelwaar: that he was a vociferous critic of charity and foreign aid, that he was a philandering husband, that he was a leader in the Christian community, that he was so opposed to charity that he blessed his daughter's prostitution as a form of self-help. We also learn that Guelwaar has been killed, probably for his constant speechifying. The really fascinating material in the movie, however, are the small observations. Through Sembène's wry attention to detail, we observe a great many things about village life that would otherwise pass unnoticed. We see the men in native mourning garb topped with Western fedoras, an undismayed Moslem widow in mourning while reading a fashion magazine, an understanding Muslim imam cursing in frustration, the embarrassment of gathering friends and relatives to a funeral and having no corpse to bury, the interminable amount of time spent sitting around and waiting. It's all the little moments in Guelwaar that are so vivid and memorable. Sembène's camera catches everything with a simplicity and naturalism that allows us to simultaneously see both the metaphorical forest and the trees.