AKA: The Money Order, Le Mandat
Year Released: 1968
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Running Time: 91 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Borrom Sarret, Dreams of Dust, The Accordion, Xala, Ousmane, Black Girl, Ikiru
-UPDATE: The Criterion Collection licensed this movie. The review reflects the original New Yorker Films DVD release.
-Mandabi is based on Ousmane Sembene’s book of the same name.
-Mandabi made some significant firsts in cinematic history. It’s Ousmane Sembene’s first full-length movie in color, the first full-length movie using the Wolof language as a major form of dialogue (there is some French spoken in some parts though), and it’s the first feature film to use an indigenous African language with a movie made in West Africa by someone directly from the continent.
-Language Bonus: Mandabi means “money order” in Wolof, but it’s actually a variation of the French word “Mandat” since Senegal is a former French colony.
-The main character Ibrahima is played by Makhouredia Gueye and this was his debut role. He would work with Sembene after that with Xala and Ceddo. Outside of acting, he’s also a saxophonist.
Ousmane Sembene has been one of the biggest surprises for me as a film aficionado. I know I’m repeating myself, but he’s probably one of those filmmakers I wish I knew about when I was younger especially during my university years when I did my cinema courses. Black Girl was seriously one of the best films I had never heard of and that should be listed in the film academic canon. His debut work Borrom Sarret wasn’t as good in my opinion, but it was certainly worth watching as it shows a genesis of sorts for African directors. After discovering his work, I wanted to know what else this Senegalese director has worked on, so I checked out the next full-length film made by him.
Is this one on the money? Let’s find out.
Mandabi deals with the life of the man Ibrihima Dieng. He lives in Dakar with his two wives and his children, but the problem is that he’s been unemployed for the past four years. Things might become hopeful as Ibrahima gets a letter from his nephew Abdou who currently lives in Paris. The nephew in question has been working as a street sweeper up in France due to the severe unemployment going on in Dakar, but he managed to save up money to give to the family back in Senegal. With this letter came a money order worth 25,000 Francs for the family. Ibrahima does have a right to get a share of this money in addition to his sister while also saving a bit for Abdou himself. Ibrahima tries to cash in the money order, but there’s one major problem. He doesn’t have any ID on him. So he goes to city hall and various government offices to get some kind of legal identification, but the rampant Senegalese bureaucracy hasn’t helped. Ibrahima is also illiterate, so even he has trouble explaining information like his own birthdate for example. Word gets out that he got a bunch of brie from his France-bound nephew (hooray for money and cheese puns!), so his neighbors, friends, and strangers have been showing up begging for money and food since they figure that he’s moving on up in his humble home. Ibrahima is also running out of time in this maelstrom of begging, being begged on, trying to get ID, and other inconveniences since the money order is staying for fifteen days before being sent off back to France.
This was a fascinating entry into Ousmane Sembene’s oeuvre of films. Seeing his work in color was a nice touch even though his previous films were fine in their black and white cinematography (aged film notwithstanding). The neorealism feel was a very nice touch with lots of earth tones, some yellows, greens, and reds thrown in appropriate places with the lighting and all. The specific colors I mentioned could be a result of fridge brilliance when you consider the fact that those are the colors of the Senegalese flag. The authenticity and cultural aspects of making a Wolof-language film was a very nice touch especially since more people in Senegal know that language than French even to this day (French is the 2nd most spoken language in that nation and still has official status, but that’s besides the point). Much like Borrom Sarret and Black Girl, the soundtrack involves traditional folk music with some Wolof lyrics sung. I did catch that the film’s title was mentioned in one of the songs despite my lack of fluency of that language. The acting was superb even when most of the actors were non-professionals much like Jafar Panahi’s works decades afterwards or like Before Your Eyes. Seeing Ibrahima’s face in the end when he deals with a major part of the finale was spot on with the levels of emotions given the gravity of what happens at the end which I won’t spoil for you. Yes, I know poverty plays a part of this story, but I actually saw the point of it (saying nothing how Dakar looks a lot better now compared to the 60s). The rampant begging going on with the money and food is both a symptom and metaphor for the neo-colonial ramifications happening in Senegal as people are in poor conditions, but also because of the colonizer’s parasitic method of taxation. It’s done in a very subtle way and I can see this being a bit of an extension of some of the themes in Black Girl, but in a completely different context. You see it with the people in Dakar and with the bureaucracy at home in contrast to Black Girl taking place in France for over half the movie. Part of me wanted to bash Mandabi because of the portrayal of poverty, but I did find an artistic purpose for it.
Mandabi does get shortchanged in different ways. Much like other films made decades ago there is certainly aged elements with the cameras. It also because an unintentional period piece especially if you compare Senegal back then to the same country in it’s modern day setting. I found most of the background characters to be forgettable and quite underdeveloped. Ibrahima’s children become such non-factors and felt more like plot backdrops just to show that he has a family. You can make a case with Abdou being shown in that Paris montage when the letter is being read to his uncle and that’s the only thing we know about the character. Part of me got frustrated about Ibrahima in different ways like how he wasn’t trying to find work or the whole bigamy aspect. I know he’s trying to get the ID, but why didn’t he get it earlier on in life? My only assumption was him clearly being alive during the height of French occupation and oppression (context: It’s mentioned he was born in 1900 and Senegal wouldn’t become independent until sixty years later), so he must have not been allowed to read or learn things about his culture because of the colonization, but I wonder how much that would’ve affected him in his life. I felt like certain parts of the plot could’ve been avoided, but there were some aspects that might not have been the characters’ fault given that country’s situation in a colonial and post-colonial context. I had issue with the subtitle work and I swear this looked like it’s from the same people responsible for Yeelen. There were some typos and parts of dialogue didn’t get subtitled at all which was frustrating. Even the songs didn’t get subtitled and I wanted to know what they were singing about in the Wolof language .
I thought Mandabi was better than Borrom Sarret, but not as good as Black Girl. That means it is still a good movie to watch. The neorealism aspect really works on so many levels with the plot and aesthetics. The acting was very good for so many of the characters. However, the iffy subtitle work and some plot holes did hinder this from getting my highest score. Mandabi was still a meaningful watch, but I wouldn’t call it one of Sembene’s best work. However, I did enjoy this compared to a good portion of other classic movies I’ve seen from around the world. Recommended.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1-2 points if you like neorealism films
Subtract 1-2 points if you want perfect video production
-Neorealism elements are on point
-Nice satire on neocolonialism and bureaucracy
-Background characters are underdeveloped
-Some plot elements could’ve been avoided
-Mediocre subtitling work
Final Score: 8/10 points
Content Warning: Mandabi would probably get a PG rating, but I don’t think kids would get all of the implications of the plot. There’s the poverty aspect that’s overt, obviously, but the aspects of neocolonialism and finances would go over the heads of the youngest viewers. There is some dialogue that gets adult like a random beggar woman assumes Ibrahima wants her to be indecent even though it wasn’t the case. Some characters drink and smoke, there’s one fight scene that does have a bit of blood in the aftermath, and one character uses strong language in French during one talking scene. Ibrahim is also in a polygamous marriage, so that will raise some eyebrows.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Mandabi is property of Ousmane Sembene and The Criterion Collection. The DVD cover is from Slant and is property of New Yorker Films.