1968’s Mandabi, or The Money Order in English, is Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène’s second feature film and first comedy. Newly restored as he and other historic African filmmakers begin to get their due respect within American film culture, Mandabi reminds why Sembène is known by critics, scholars, and film lovers alike as the “father of African cinema."
Mandabi is loudly satirical from its opening beats. Loud, obnoxious patriarch Ibrahima Dieng (Gueye) sits with his chin up and his eyes shut as a street laborer oils up his face and carefully shaves his nostrils. The uncomfortably close shots up Ibrahima’s nose are a hilarious show of wealth, made even more ridiculous when we realize he has none. Ibrahima, the unemployed head of his household, moves through the world with unearned pride, spending based on credit he doesn’t have and shouting commands at two wives and seven children who have no reason to respect him. When a nephew in Paris mails a hefty money order back home to Dakar, it seems like Ibrahima’s problems might all be solved – until, of course, they aren’t.
Because there was something else going on in those silly moments at the start of the film. The lathering and shaving are met with a quick-paced but dissonantly sad song played on a West African string instrument called the kora. The same song soundtracks Sembène’s debut feature Black Girl, a dark, painful story about a Senegalese maid made miserable by her job in Paris. The resonance seems to suggest these two films live in the same universe, and we see that play out as Mandabi unfolds. Corrupt and convoluted bureaucracies exist in Senegal as remnants of the French colonization that ended a decade before, and they prevent Ibrahima from ever cashing out his money order.
While Sembène is clearly critical of Ibrahima’s overbearing hubris, the sad sympathy of Black Girl is present too, because while Mandabi’s characters are exaggerated, the state-enabled poverty they face is all too realistic. Sembène achieves this balance of tone with a mix of absurd and biting dialogue and a modest mise en scène. Stray cats pass through corners of the frame, and the shaky camera feels at times documentarian. It’s an illuminating example of neorealist filmmaking and highly stylized comedy from a much needed non-Western perspective. Mandabi and this vibrant 4K restoration are gifts not to be taken for granted.
Available now as a virtual cinema release.
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.