Neorealism was born in postwar Italy. By the mid-1950s, however, its greatest examples were made abroad. “Mandabi” (“The Money Order”), the second feature film by the dean of West African filmmakers Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007), is one. Filmed with a cast of nonprofessionals on the streets of Dakar, Senegal, it is a mordant fable of good fortune gone bad. Newly restored, the 1968 movie can be streamed from Film Forum, starting Jan. 15.
“Stop killing us with hope,” exclaims one of the two wives of the movie’s dignified yet hapless protagonist Ibrahima, a devout Muslim who hasn’t worked in four years. The postman just told them that, like a bolt out of the blue, a money order had arrived from Ibrahima’s nephew in Paris.
News travels fast. Needy neighbors, not to mention the local imam, arrive with their hands out. Meanwhile, Ibrahima learns that in order to cash the money order, he must have an identity card, and to get an identity card, he needs a birth certificate, and to obtain a birth certificate, he must have a friend in court — not to mention a photograph and the money to get one. Being illiterate, Ibrahima will also require someone to explain every procedure. Once the command center for France’s African colonies, Dakar has no shortage of bureaucrats.
While it’s never made clear exactly how Ibrahima has managed to support two wives, seven children and his own vanity in a city where fresh water is a cash commodity, his wives wait on him as though he were a baby. An actual infant wails off-camera as Ibrahima is pampered but a more profound irony concerns his identity. His mission to cash his nephew’s money order reveals that he has none, at least in any official sense. Worse, his quest for a windfall that is not even his sets him up as a mark for all manner of swindlers, hustlers and thieves — in a word, society at large.
The people Ibrahima encounters are largely consumed with self-interest. “Mandabi” however is quite generous — rich in detail, a feast for the eyes and ears. The colors are vibrant and saturated; the title song was a local hit until, apparently recognizing its subversive power, the Senegalese government banned it from the radio. (Based on a short story by Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the movie has a complicated relation to authority which may account for the less than convincing optimism of its tacked-on ending.)
Reviewing “Mandabi” when it was shown at the 1969 New York Film Festival, The New York Times’s film critic Roger Greenspun wrote that, “as a comedy dealing with life’s miseries, it displays a controlled sophistication.” Indeed, “Mandabi” may initially seem like a story out of Kafka or the Book of Job, but it essentially criticizes a post-colonial system that pits class against class in the exploitation of nearly all.
It’s also a satire of self-deception. Years ago, Sembène told two interviewers from Film Quarterly that “Mandabi” had been shown throughout Africa “because every other country claims that what happens in the movie occurs only in Senegal.”
Available for screening starting Jan. 15; filmforum.org.