This second feature by Ousmane Sembène was the first movie ever made in the Wolof language—a major step toward the realization of the trailblazing Senegalese filmmaker’s dream of creating a cinema by, about, and for Africans. After jobless Ibrahima Dieng receives a money order for 25,000 francs from a nephew who works in Paris, news of his windfall quickly spreads among his neighbors, who flock to him for loans even as he finds his attempts to cash the order stymied in a maze of bureaucracy, and new troubles rain down on his head. One of Sembène’s most coruscatingly funny and indignant films, Mandabi—an adaptation of a novella by the director himself—is a bitterly ironic depiction of a society scarred by colonialism and plagued by corruption, greed, and poverty.
The Criterion Collection presents Ousmane Sembène’s Mandabi (The Money Order) on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode is sourced from a new 4K restoration performed by StudioCanal. A 35mm interpositive was the source for the restoration.
It's easy to see a lot of work into this, damage rarely being a concern. At worst a tram line will pop up on the right side of screen from time to time, and there is the occasional scratch here and there, but outside of those very minor issues nothing of note pops up; the picture has been cleaned up substantially. Though the image is rarely razor-sharp (more than likely a byproduct of the film elements) the finer details of the film’s settings and the beads of sweat on the characters’ faces really jump.
There’s also a very nice film-like quality to the picture thanks to the rendering of the grain and artifacts aren’t of any concern. The picture does lean heavily on the warmer end of the colour spectrum, yellows coming off heavily with whites taking on that hue, and blues appearing a bit weaker. But it’s not overly aggressive, and in his included introduction found on the disc, film scholar Aboubakar Sanogo mentions feeling the heat in the film is important, so it could be an intentional look. Either way it doesn’t negatively impact other areas of the picture, like the black levels (which are strong without coming off milky). It’s a sharp looking presentation in the end.
There is a harshness to the monaural single-channel PCM soundtrack, clearest in the film’s music, but voices are strong and the track is free of any notable damage.
Criterion packs in a few interesting supplements. They first include a 30-minute introduction by scholar Aboubakar Sanogo, along with a 19-minute interview between author and screenwriter Boubacar Boris Diop and sociologist and feminist activist Marie Angélique Savané. Both features go over the importance of the film and the impact it made (it’s pointed out in both discussions that this is the first film post-colonial film to feature characters speaking in Wolof and not just French), as well as Sembène’s importance as a writer and filmmaker. Sanogo looks at some of the filmmaker’s other works and talks about the performances along with other noteworthy aspects of the film, while Diop and Savané talk about the social and political climate around the time the filme was released, while also touching on how Sembène depicts women in this film and his other works. The film does work well enough on its own, but having it further contextualized, with little details pointed out that might otherwise go over a western audience’s head (like how the more well-off characters speak French), the interviews do enhance the film.
Criterion then presents a 15-minute program about the director called Praise Song, featuring interview outtakes filmed for the 2015 documentary Sembène! with filmmakers Manthia Diawara and Clarence Delgado, authors Angela Davis and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and musician Youssou N’Dour. The disc also features Sembène’s short film Tauw, running 26-minutes. The short's plot centers around a young man and the difficulties he faces just trying to find work as a day laborer, dealing with various levels of corruption and bad luck. It shares some minor similarities to the main feature in how in depicts the difficult economic climate, and its protagonist comes to the same conclusions as the protagonist in Mandabi. It’s a good addition and the presentation, though a standard-def upscale, is decent enough.
The release then comes with an insert and a booklet. The insert features an essay on the film by Tiana Reid followed by a reprint of a 1969 interview with the director, who answers a handful of questions around the film. The 64-page booklet includes Sembène’s original novella. In her essay Reid points out some differences between the film and story, and there are a couple of big ones, though the general storyline is the same. The story, as Reid also points out, does lack the humour found in the film. A glossary of terms is also included on the last page.
It's not packed with material but the inclusion of the original story, the short film by Sembène, and a number of interviews around the film and its importance, make this release very satisfying.
A thoughtfully put together special edition with an impressive looking restoration. Highly recommended.