I am still a newcomer to the films of Ousmane Sembène, but even with my limited experience, it is clear that his cinema is an intensely political one; colonialism, race, corruption, and religion surface time and time again as Sembène’s observational style remains consistent. Most recently I watched Mandabi (the other two I have seen are Black Girl and Xala), and it is no exception. At first, it’s somewhat comical; when Ibrahim (Makhouredia Gueye) receives a money order from his nephew in the amount of 25,000 francs, his two wives (Ynousse N’Diaye and Isseu Nieng) began to buy things on credit (that is, the honor system) in anticipation of a payday. Whenever Ibrahim thinks he has his hands on the money, he goes through the familiar nightmare of being re-directed from office to office so he can acquire the proper documentation. The money order requires an ID, which require a birth certificate, which requires being able to read your birthday from a paper when you can’t even read the language it’s written in. All of these, of course, are in different offices. As Ibrahim goes from one place to the other, tragedy quietly begins to unfold. He must continually borrow money in order to have his picture taken and sort out other hassles, promising to payback after he cashes his money order, but at the same time, out of religious faith and devotion, he lends money to anyone who asks for it. 20 francs, 300 francs, whatever it takes to “ward off evil.”
As most films dealing with the corruption of inconvenience of bureaucracy do, Mandabi gets a bit repetitive (for a more recent example, later scenes of Once Upon A Time In Anatolia takes away from a powerful tale at the core). Luckily, Mandabi is saved by more dynamic and intelligent portrayals of corruption. There are quite a few turns involving Ibrahim’s wife, friends, and a businessman he enlists who take advantage of him, make morally questionable decisions, and/or (possibly) lie outright to him for personal gain. Mandabi shows how a corrupt bureaucracy breeds desperate immorality from its own people, and it unravels at a good pace, suggesting causality that it might not otherwise. “When begging becomes a trade, what will happen to this country?” Ibrahim asks. The irony is that we can see it already has. The actions of the government and the people are linked, corruption in one breeds corruption in the other; Sembène’s characters are simple and archetypal. We don’t see the events as particular, but as universal. This pattern could be suppressing anybody.
Aiding that theme is Sembène’s unobtrusive camera placement. Sembène, previously an author, has said that he began making films because his concern for social change meant that his works needed to reach the widest possible audience. Sembène is not concerned with sympathy or epiphany, so his long, unflashy takes give allow us to easily see and consider what is wrong. This is a universal story, the story of how a corrupt government breeds people far too selfish to create any lasting, positive change.
Sembène is also particularly critical of religion, as his characters inevitably repeat “Allah willing” when they say that they will do something that circumstance later prevents. Likewise, Ibrahim is scammed by beggars but believes his generosity is warding off evil. Mandabi suggests that the poor countrymen have nothing more than their religion, but in a corrupt society, religion is a tool of the oppressors, not a sign of hope for the oppressed.
This is purely observational, suggested by an un-fluffed but somewhat obvious script that, in the final moments, makes way for a montage of Mandabi’s most important moments, just in case you were a bit behind. As a message of social change, it’s probably a good thing. As cinema, it’s unnecessary. In a film that plays safe and makes most of its points early on, it’s a bit condescending. Still, Mandabi nonetheless maintains interest and always looks like it will have another trick up its sleeve, and although it’s not Sembène’s best movie, it is smart and focused all the same.