1961-1970African CinemaDramaOusmane SembeneSenegal

Ousmane Sembene – Mandabi AKA The Money Order (1968)


A money order from a relative in Paris throws the life of a Senegalese family man out of order. He deals with corruption, greed, problematic family members, the locals and the changing from his traditional way of living to a more modern one.

From Time Out:

A political film criticising the type of bureaucracy that has arisen in post-colonial Senegal. A money order is sent to an unemployed, illiterate relative by a hard-working lad seeking his fortune in Paris. But all attempts to cash the money order are frustrated: the man’s illiteracy and ignorance of finance allow him to be exploited by those with education. The power is in the hands of the clerks and intellectuals, who use their knowledge for private advantage. Although the film can be criticised for the relative gentleness of its attack, Sembene succeeds in pointing up the divisiveness created by the colonial heritage. The French-colonised elite are now busy oppressing and colonising their own people. Shot in Wolof, the local language, the film asserts Senegalese culture against the rapacious way of the West. Not surprisingly it proved popular with the ‘people’, but was ignored by the bourgeois when originally released.

From the NY Times (some Spoilers):

“MANDABI” which played last night at the New York Film Festivals, is the second feature to have been directed by Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese novelist and filmmaker. As a comedy dealing with life’s miseries, it displays a controlled sophistication in the telling that gives it a feeling of almost classic directness and simplicity.

What Sembène does not make his camera do means more than what many vituoso directors do make their cameras do. Less is always less, not more, but a little technical display has gone a long way in the films of Robert Bresson and Jean-Marie Straub, and (to cite the extreme example) in the beautiful single-camera-position cinema of Yasujiro Ozu.

“Mandabi” translates as “money order.” The film is concerned with a foolish middle-aged Senegalese who one day receives, in trust, a large money order from a nephew working in Paris. He cannot cash the money order without proper identification, and in the days he spends trying to get identification he is cheated, lied to, even beaten by friends and neighbors who want the money.

However, because he is such a pompous fool, so blithely superior to his two wives, so gluttonous with his food and confident in his walk, his troubles seem deserved and funny—until by sheer accumulation they suddenly turn sour, and, terrifying. In this turn lies the film’s crisis, which is really a crisis in perception. An odd, optimistic, patriotic finale that follows has nothing to do with the artistic necessities of the case.

Sembène’s approach is spare, laconic, slightly ironic and never patronizing. Like many good directors, he displays a reticence toward his characters that grants him freedom from explicit moral judgment and allows them a quality of personal wholeness that is perhaps more important to the movies than great performance. Because his hero, Dieng (played by Mamadou Guye, brilliantly and without undue complications), must change in our eyes without changing very much in his character, such wholeness is crucial to the movement of the film.

After Dieng has been beaten by a stupid crowd, his first wife spreads the story that he has lost the money order (he has not) so that her family can collect charity. Charity is given, Dieng protests the lie, and the wife says, “A lie that unites people is better than the truth.”

At the press screening the audience applauded this sentiment—which suggests both how far many of us have come in liking sophisticated nonsense and why the plain speaking that “Mandabi” really supports is worth our time. Dieng’s misfortunes, like the rooms, courtyards and streets so unassumingly explored by Sembène’s camera, belong to the ordinary continuum of experience. Because they are the products of a universal trickery, like fate, they cannot be avoided. But they need not be approved. In this small distinction lie the style and the hope of the film.



Language:Wolof & French
Subtitles:English Hardcoded


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