Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The Grand Illusion is hosting virtual screenings of two films by the giant of sub-Saharan African cinema, Ousmane Sembene. One film may be Sembene’s most famous, Black Girl, released in 1966. But the other is at least as good, and maybe even more in the director’s lacerating style: Mandabi, from 1968, now showing in a 4K restoration.
Both films are available to watch through March 11. I went into my notes and found some jottings (with spoilers, I suppose) about Mandabi.
Mandabi, a 1968 film by Ousmane Sembene. Very Kafkaesque story of a poor Senegalese man, Dieng, with two wives and many children, who receives a money order from his nephew in Paris and has his life become a nightmare. Begins with a funny scene: the main character getting his head and nostrils shaved (he is devout, and this is apparently done for Allah). He is, even before he knows about the money order, complacent and bossy with his wives, who fix his food and wash his feet. Because he is illiterate and without an identity card, he must go through a series of travails to cash the money order, each worse than the last (a lawyer takes power of attorney to cash the order, then informs Dieng the next day he was pickpocketed on the way home from the bank).
Meanwhile, the phantom windfall has Dieng borrowing against it, and his neighbors crowding him for loans and bags of rice. A tone of subtle mockery is maintained throughout, mostly directed at the evasion of responsibility evinced by all the characters (despite the debt that is increasing, one of Dieng’s wives cannot resist buying on credit a red brassiere that a traveling salesman brings by). The comedy of the film becomes almost Shakespearian as it goes along. Interesting ending: as Dieng and his two wives sit in despair in front of their house, the postman (whose arrival started everything) answers Dieng’s question of how things will ever change by saying, “We will change it. You and I.” Very matter-of-factly delivered, and Sembene keeps the camera on Dieng, not on the postman as he says these lines—it is a call to change but in an offhand way, and clearly Sembene is talking about Africa changing itself.
Also from my notes: this 2004 quote from Sembene, which I’ve cited when lecturing about African film: “In the traditional society which I come from, when you look at our societies, whether you’re talking about the Mandinka, Bambara or Fulani, we have the tradition of the storyteller called the griot and also other kinds of storytellers. Their role was to record memories of daily actions and events. At night, people would gather around them and they would tell those stories that they had recorded. I think there are parallels between myself and these storytellers, because in that traditional society, the storyteller was his own writer, director, actor and musician. And I think his role was very important in cementing society. Now, with new technologies and the tools that we have acquired, I think we can take inspiration from them and do some work.“
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.