Restored in 4K to a gorgeous sheen and released for the first time in years, Mandabi is an overlooked masterpiece of world cinema and I absolutely loved it.
I’d never seen it before but it’s by the father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene, from Dakar, Senegal and set in 1968. It’s about a pompous man in a poor village who receives a letter from the postman informing him it’s a money order – a ‘mandabi’ – from his nephew in Paris, to the tune of 25,000 francs, sent back to be shared out among the family. All this guy, Ibrahim Dieng, has got to do is get to the post office and cash it…
Easier said than done in post-colonial Dakar and poor Dieng is pushed from pillar to post office and back again. He needs birth certificates, photos, all sorts of ID and proof that he doesn’t have and is being charged for, 300 francs here, another bit there.
Meanwhile his two wives back home are being pressed for cash while taking out credit at the local shop for bags of rice and various local characters who’ve heard about Dieng’s fortune keep appearing demanding money or handouts… all will be sorted when Ibrahim cashes his mandabi, they say.
I adored this – the colours, the clothes, the surreal yet debilitating bureaucratic nightmare, the little details of everyday life and character. It’s so skilful, economical and so resonant, with something of the fable and griot storyteller to it and the themes are comic and classic yet you feel for the whole society, the way colonialism and corruption is crushing its spirit at source.
For all the great stuff in Dakar, perhaps the best bit is a voice-over scene of the nephew writing his letter from urban Paris.
Mandabi: I order you to see it.