Good Luck Is a Curse in This Classic Film From Senegal
Neorealism was born in post-war Italy. However, in the mid-1950s, the largest examples were made abroad. “Mandabi” (“The Payment Order”), the second feature film by the dean of the West African filmmaker Ousmane Sembène (1923-2007), is one of them. Filmed with a cast of non-professionals on the streets of Dakar, Senegal, it’s a pickling fable of happiness gone bad. The newly restored film from 1968 can be streamed from the Film Forum from January 15th.
“Stop killing us with hope,” exclaims one of the two women of the dignified but unhappy protagonist of the film, Ibrahima, a devout Muslim who has not worked for four years. The postman just told them that out of the blue a money order from Ibrahima’s nephew had arrived in Paris.
News travels fast. Needy neighbors, not to mention the local imam, arrive with their hands outstretched. In the meantime, Ibrahima learns that he must have ID in order to redeem the money order. In order to receive an ID, he needs a birth certificate. To get a birth certificate, he has to have a friend in court – don’t mention a photo and the money to get one. Being illiterate, Ibrahima will also need someone to explain each procedure. Dakar was once the command center for the African colonies of France and has no shortage of bureaucrats.
While it is never clear how Ibrahima managed to support two women, seven children, and his own vanity in a city where fresh water is a cash asset, his wives wait for him as if he were a baby. A real child whines off camera as Ibrahima is pampered, but a deeper irony involves his identity. His mission to cash his nephew’s money order shows that, at least in the official sense, he doesn’t have one. Worse still, his quest for a stroke of luck that doesn’t even belong to him sets him up as a sign of all kinds of cheaters, hustlers and thieves – in a word, society in general.
Most of the people Ibrahima encounters are consumed with selfishness. “Mandabi”, however, is quite generous – rich in detail, a feast for the eyes and ears. The colors are vivid and saturated; The theme song was a local hit until the Senegalese government apparently recognized its subversive power and banned it from the radio. (Based on a short story by Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the film has a complicated relationship to authority, which may be responsible for the less than convincing optimism of its pinned ending.)
New York Times film critic Roger Greenspun reviewed “Mandabi” when it was shown at the 1969 New York Film Festival and wrote, “As a comedy dealing with the misery of life, it exhibits a controlled sophistication.” Indeed, “Mandabi” may at first seem like a story from Kafka or the Book of Job, but essentially criticizes a post-colonial system that pits classes against classes in the exploitation of almost all classes.
It is also a satire of self-deception. Years ago, Sembène told two Film Quarterly interviewers that “Mandabi” had been shown all over Africa “because every other country claims that what happens in the film only happens in Senegal.”
Available for screening January 15; filmforum.org.