The old saying goes that money is the root of all evil. Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene's Mandabi goes one step further and shows how even the promise of money can send one's world into disarray. Like his later film Xala, Sembene begins the film with a simple situation that proceeds to spin wildly out of control, becoming more complex the more our protagonists scramble for normalcy. Coming from another continent and focusing on a different culture, you may not think what Mandabi has to say applies to you, though the results just might take you by surprise.
Ibrahima (Makhouredia Gueye) is a good-hearted (albeit slightly oafish) family man who's been without a job for the past four years. One day, fortune smiles on Ibrahima and his brood when a money order for 25,000 francs arrives in the mail. But our hero hasn't even gotten wind of it when his wives (Ynousse N'Diaye and Isseu Niang) start buying goods on credit. When Ibrahima actually goes to cash the order, it seems that forces are conspiring to prevent him from doing just that. He finds himself unable to get his money without an ID card, birth certificate, and various other documents — all of which, of course, cost money that Ibrahima doesn't have. In the meantime, word of the money order spreads amongst Ibrahima's neighbors, who come crawling out of the woodwork to borrow cash or food, requests Ibrahima finds hard to turn down even though he himself is spiraling further and further into debt.
As with Xala, Sembene breaks cultural barriers with Mandabi by incorporating themes that just about anyone can identify with. Both films center around how greed can corrupt otherwise upstanding people, though Mandabi is more on the side of its protagonist than the other picture. Sembene depicts Ibrahima as something of a blowhard who expects to be waited on hand and foot, although he provides next to nothing for his extensive clan. Just like Xala's lead character, Ibrahima (played quite well by Gueye) is a fairly flawed hero, in this case conveniently forgetting that the nephew who sent the money order asked it be disbursed amongst his other relatives. At the same time, though, you sympathize with the man just for living in the situation that he does. The money order begins as a blessing in disguise, but as the film goes on, reaping those rewards becomes less and less likely. Ibrahima could use the cash as much as anyone else, but with so many people asking for a handout, fate seems hell-bent on preventing him from ever seeing a cent.
With all this in mind, what ultimate message does Mandabi bring to the table? Simply put, it's that the system has a tendency to screw over people who need help the most. If there are any enemies in the story, they're the people who refuse to let Ibrahima cash the order due to his illiteracy or lack of a certain document. Sembene also comments on how greed reigns supreme in the modern world by way of a nephew of Ibrahima's (Mouss Diof) with designs on the money order himself. He does a great job of showing how the attitudes of people change when money's on the line, such as when a shopkeeper sells Ibrahima rice he tells a beggar child that he doesn't have. The downside to all of this is that Sembene treats his characters almost too harshly, sending them to bureaucratic hell and back before inserting a blink-and-you'll-miss-it message about change right at the end. The story is an effective one that says what it has to say, but don't be surprised to find yourself hitting the rewind button to go back and catch exactly what it is.
Mandabi is one of the rare films in which terrible misfortune greets the main characters, yet none of it feels gratuitous or overdone. It's a rough-hewn but relevant fable about not watching one's pennies but about rallying against a system that's not so keen on giving them out.