Mandabi – Film Review

Mandabi presents a cautionary tale of the issues that having more money creates instead of being a source of happiness. The film was initially released in 1968 but has now been the subject of a glorious 4K restoration which will enable more audiences to view this dramedy which remains relevant to this day. Mandabi shines a light on the bureaucratic difficulties in Senegal to obtain paperwork, such as a birth certificate, following the country’s independence from France in 1960.  Mandabi is also renowned for being the first film to be made in an African language, being Wolof, and it was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1968.

Makhouredia Gueye and others in Mandabi
Makhouredia Gueye and others in Mandabi

The film’s title Mandabi means money order in Wolof and it is this item that unravels a complex Senegalese system regarding proving one’s identity.  Ibrahima, played affectingly by Makhouredia Gueye, receives the titular money order from his nephew in Paris which should be a saving grace to assist with his financial woes.  However, in Ibrahima’s attempts to undertake the simple task of cashing in a money order, the film exposes the degree of exploitation, corruption and political bias in effect during such period.  It would be easy to describe the film’s depiction of such scenarios as a relic from the past but there may still be marginalised groups today subject to an equally distressing level of treatment to identify themselves legally.

Mandabi provides this historical snapshot of a Senegal steeped in tradition and patriarchy.  Ibrahima, whilst financially insecure, has two doting wives within his household pandering to his whims.  The film lingers on Ibrahima’s pleasurable moments where he is effectively treated like a king at home with massages after a day walking through the streets.  However, Ibrahima does not appear to be respectful of his wives for the most part.  The film’s slow pace provides that opportunity to revel in the sight of Ibrahima walking through the streets in long, flowing traditional robes through a vivid colour palette.  Director Ousmane Sembene might have deliberately opted to include this contrast between Ibrahima’s traditional clothes and a country on the cusp of change striving to find its own identity.  Ibrahima is unable to prove his identity easily as many Senegalese were not in possession of their birth certificates and the film acutely depicts this sense of frustration with close ups on Gueye’s expressive features, who carries the film. 

Makhouredia Gueye as Ibrahima in Mandabi
Makhouredia Gueye as Ibrahima in Mandabi

As Ibrahima’s desperation increases, to cash the money order in time, so does the level of exploitation increase as others seek to profit from his plight.  Sembene had sought to highlight the levels of corruption that the Senegalese were encountering in those situations as several people along Ibrahima’s route cheat him and take advantage of him in his time of need.  The corruption runs from the government officials to the impoverished and the film’s message, albeit humorous at moments, seems to indicate that trust should be given sparingly and that those in possession of a new sums of money would be wise not to declare this to the entire community.

This second feature of Sembene’s offers an impressive political commentary amidst the life of the ordinary citizens, all wishing for a simple escape route from their angst.  It is intriguing to observe the levels of deception and machinations employed by such citizens towards Ibrahima to achieve their goals.  Sembene’s skilful direction of such targeted plotting against Ibrahima results in a very powerful, moving denouement which underlines the cautionary maxim of having more money and more problems. 

Mandabi is a riveting watch which has remained relevant to these times. Mandabi has fortunately been recognised as a pivotal film in the 1960s improving the opportunities for more films from the African continent to be made and for those stories to be heard on an international scale.

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