‘Mandabi’ Remains A Stunning Indictment Of Bureaucracy: Review

mandabi studiocanal 4k blu-ray re-release

Though linguistically sparse, the power of Mandabi lies in the visual, often humorous details, which capture the monotonous bureaucracy of Senegal in a colourful fable. This new 4K restoration of Ousmane Sembène’s pioneering 1968 film leads us through the painful progress of long-unemployed Ibrahima as he tries to cash a money order sent from Paris by his nephew.

The opening sets the tone immediately: Ibrahima sits on the ground, being shaved by another man, who then sets about aggressively cleaning his nostrils in a close-up shot. This quirky physicality endures throughout Mandabi. On his various journeys to attempt to cash the money order, his ballooning xaftaan, usually reserved for formal wear, trips and impedes his walk. Seemingly reflective of his apparent gullibility and reputation as a “hopeless show-off”, it simultaneously highlights the endemic pride and greed of African bureaucracy, which hinders Senegal. The acting from Makhouredia Gueye, Ynousse N’Diaye and Issue Niang, who play Ibrahima, Maty and Aram, Ibrahima’s wives, is flawless and committed, enabling the audience to fully engage with the narrative.

Once labelled the ‘African Molière’, Sembène’s subtle mockery of his main character is indeed reminiscent of the 16th century French playwright. The constant visual juxtapositions, however, keep the audience’s empathies in flux and highlight the extraordinary layers of corruption at play, which repress different groups to varying extents.

Initially Ibrahima seems ridiculous, as he sits inside sweating and overstuffed from a meal his wives have prepared him. The camera centres on him, forcing your eye to his selfish concern for his food, while we see only his wives’ feet as they run back and forward to ensure he is satisfied. Yet, in the next scene, you begin to pity Ibrahima. He is sent away from the bank to the police station to obtain an ID card. From there, he is told he first needs a birth certificate, so on he goes to City Hall. There, unable to read, he can only say that his birth date was “around 1900”, so finally turns to his nephew who “knows someone”. The impossibility of overcoming the web of bureaucracy for less educated Senegalese people is strikingly present.

Sembène’s criticism does not end there. While Ibrahima seemed to struggle in the bustling Dakar city centre, we now return to the domestic setting, in which, despite other men in the village’s criticism that his wives run his home, we see how they are held back in a deeply patriarchal society. The extent to which Sembène is able to capture the complex, multi-faceted inequality, with just a few simple shots, is striking. There is a nod to the racial oppression of the French colonial government of the previous decade in the repeated image of Ibrahima’s Black child sleeping next to, then gently washing a white baby doll. In another scene, Ibrahima sleeps soundly through prayer at the mosque, only to lash at his wives Maty and Aram when he wakes, for sleeping “when your bellies are full […] what about God?”. His hypocrisy is farcical.

Sembène’s concern to touch a wide audience is present in another of Mandabi’s juxtapositions, which the sparsity of the dialogue only serves to highlight. The filmmaker’s native Wolof language is spoken throughout most of the film, except at the end; Ibrahima is completely undone by Mbaye, a suited, Francophone member of the elite, who steals the money order and sells his house to a French man, relying on Ibrahima’s ignorance of the language.

If only one flaw can be found in Mandabi, it lies in Sembène’s choice to end on an overwhelming layering of dialogue from the film, while the camera shot spins into a series of flashbacks. It comes to rest on a close-up of Ibrahima’s shocked face and the echoing words: “decency is a sin in this country”. The cacophony of noise somewhat undermines that this is a film whose overriding power derives from its visual elements. Nevertheless, it was perhaps Sembène’s precise intention to force the audience to feel Ibrahima’s shock and confusion for themselves. 

The Verdict

This film forces us to confront the contrast between quotidian domestic life with the tangled, corrupt and bustling bureaucratic world, all the while highlighting that each is rife with its own inequalities. Despite Sembène’s wide-ranging excoriation, however, the film’s incredible visual beauty, revived by the new restoration, prevents it from becoming tiringly repetitive. We feel Ibrahima’s weariness at his odyssey without become weary ourselves. The irony present in each scene only serves to ensure this. While Ibrahima sits, unaware that his house is being sold, we mesmerisingly watch prayer beads drip from his hand. His blind trust that God will protect his family from poverty imbues the scene with pathos, and maintains the sense of farcical hypocrisy, tripping over into tragedy, which endures throughout.

Words by Lottie Hayton

Mandabi will arrive in UK cinemas in June 2021. It will also be released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital in June 2021 with the following bonus content:

  • Shooting Mandabi – Silent Footage from British Pathé
  • Audio Commentary with Sembène! (2015) Filmmakers Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman
  • Interview with Alain Sembène
  • Interview with African film Curator and Consultant Keith Shiri
  • Discussion with Sembène Specialist and Author David Murphy
  • Conversation in Dakar with Author Boubacar Boris Diop and Sociologist Marie-Angélique Savané
  • Theatrical trailer
  • 20-page booklet with brand-new essay from celebrated Sembène writer David Murphy

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