Thursday, November 29, 2012

MANDABI (1968)

Ibrahim Dieng lives off the grid. Born "around 1900," he was around before the grid. His country, Senegal, has been independent from France for less than a decade at the time of Ousmane Sembene's picture. In Africa, you could do worse than Senegal; the country's never had a coup and its first president was a man of letters, albeit one who threw his first prime minister in prison. Whether any of this matters to Ibrahim is unclear. The country is poor and so is he. He struggles to make ends meet from day to day, with two wives and their children to support and no job for four years. He lives off store credit, borrowing from friends and relatives, and favors from politicians and bureaucrats. An unusual windfall comes when a nephew working his way through night school as a Paris street sweeper sends a money order (in Wolof, "mandabi") for 25,000 francs to be divided between Ibrahim and his sister's family. Wonderful news! All Ibrahim has to do is cash the money order and he can pay off his tab at the neighborhood store and keep his family fed for a while.

But to cash the money order he needs identification, and he has none. To get I.D., he needs a birth certificate and a photograph. To get a birth certificate he needs to know the exact date of his birth; "around 1900" won't cut it. To get a photo he has to depend on the drunken shutterbugs in a storefront studio. To travel through town he has to borrow bus fare from people, though the promise of that money order makes the borrowing easier. Meanwhile, people are already lining up to borrow from him, or to borrow the money he borrows to finish all the steps toward getting his I.D. and cashing that money order. At every stage, people are ripping him off. A would-be fixer promises to expedite his cashing a check made out by a patron to tide him over and claims a 300 franc commission on behalf of a bank teller who probably doesn't know who he is. The photographers take his money in advance and blow him off later, telling him the picture "didn't work out" in the developing room. A bureaucrat finally has Ibrahim give him power of attorney so he can cash the money order. Two days later, he tells our hapless hero, "I'm not going to lie to you; I was the victim of a pickpocket." Ibrahim can guess the truth quickly enough, but what can he do? What can anyone do when "honesty is a sin" in Senegal?...

Above and below: Ibrahim at the stations of his cross
(It's just his luck to pick the Dakar franchise of the Freddie Quell Studio chain)

There's a temptation to call Mandabi Kafkaesque, but let's remember that "Kafkaesque" is just a label to describe a system of relationships that Sembene, adapting his own novel, perceives directly in social-realist terms. Mandabi is a bitter protest against corruption pervading every level of Senegalese society, but its hero isn't immune from his author's scorn. Sembene starts out making Ibrahim (Makhouredia Gueye) as disgusting as possible, slobbishly eating a gooey meal with his bare hands and belching painfully afterward. I assume he intends his audience to find his domineering attitude toward his wives contemptible as well, though the women aren't saints, either. After Ibrahim gets his nose bloodied in a scuffle with the photographers, they start wailing as if he'd been beaten to the brink of death and his precious money order stolen outright, in order to reap the charity of sympathetic saps in the neighborhood, and they're unrepentant when Ibrahim rebukes them afterward. Everyone looks for every opportunity to take advantage of everyone else. As a whole, Ibrahim is presented as a loser, and hardly a lovable one. At the same time, we can't help asking how hard it should be for the poor dope to get that money order cashed. That Ibrahim is mostly an unsympathetic character makes Mandabi a kind of black comedy, yet you can't escape the conclusion that he's been treated unfairly, that his predicament isn't necessarily his just desserts for being illiterate and shiftless, but definitely proof of all-encompassing injustice of which he's certainly not the only victim.

Mandabi is appropriately raw looking, though I don't think the prominent boom mike shadow in one important scene was strictly necessary. Sembene's story doesn't need to be told in any flashy fashion; his biggest indulgences are the Paris scenes of the industrious nephew at work and one use of a wipe between scenes. The film's points of appeal are the universality of a poor man's plight in an increasingly complicated society and the novel immediacy (for the global audience) of its portrait of urban Senegal in the country's formative years. In the lead role, Gueye runs an emotional gamut impressively, from arrogance to abjection, begging for bus fare at one moment and blowing off panhandlers at another. He pulls off the film's necessary trick of getting you to pity its unappealing protagonist. Like some of Warner Bros's pre-Code pictures, a damning or cynical portrait of poverty and corruption in Mandabi is marred slightly at the end by a mini-lecture delivered by one of the rare virtuous characters, a postman who tells a despairing Ibrahim that "we" should change their corrupt society, but Sembene redeems the moment and keeps the hero in character by having Ibrahim respond in self-pitying bafflement. Sembene's film -- his first in his native language -- may attract us as an authentic window into 1960s Africa, but his story has a timeless relevance that gives Mandabi more than merely historical value.

No comments: