With African cinema still largely unknown in the West and sadly underrepresented on home video, the arrival of Xala and Mandabi on DVD is a real cause for celebration. Both movies are prime samples of the work of Ousmane Sembene, the 82-year-old Senegalese director who is almost certainly the continent's most important filmmaker, and you couldn't hope for a better introduction to the movies that have been coming out of Africa for the past few decades.
Mandabi (The Money Order) was only Sembene's second feature - and, significantly, his first shot in Senegal's native Wolof language - but the director's unique approach and signature themes are already in place. A wonderfully wry comedy as well as a fascinating social critique, this 1968 gem presents us with an ordinary, barely working-class African navigating the corrupt and convoluted contours of Senegalese officialdom in an effort to cash a money order sent by a distant relative in France.
Sembene depicts the levels of his country's third world bureaucracy as a vaguely slapstick version of Dante's circles of Hell, with our increasingly befuddled hero's efforts constantly circumvented and foiled, even as wives, relatives and fair weather friends attempt to snag advance shares of money that never quite materializes. As in most Sembene films, the actors here are mostly unpolished non-professionals, and the pace can be maddeningly leisurely, but Mandabi uses its rawness and deliberate rhythms to exert an almost hypnotic effect, especially in its richly detailed scenes of daily life.
By the mid-'70s, Sembene's movies were becoming increasingly political, and although there's much to laugh about in the 1974 satire Xala (pronounced Ha-la), this is one of the director's hardest hitting (and best) films. Xala takes Sembene's themes to their absurdly logical conclusions here, equating the urge for Africans to emulate their former colonialist masters with a national desire for self-destruction, and then framing the whole scenario as an exuberantly witty comedy of sex and manners.
The movie follows a self-serving, middle-aged politician who finds himself stricken by the titular Xala (curse of impotence) on his wedding night to the latest in a series of increasingly young brides. The anti-hero's journey to have the Xala removed becomes as poignant and ridiculous as the anti-odyssey for cash in Mandabi, with Sembene cleverly using language and symbols like imported bottled water to poke at the pretensions of Africans aping their Euro-oppressors, even as he skewers hypocrisy, greed and apathy on all fronts.
In their simple, non-showy ways, both of these films are extraordinary experiences, filled with wit, wisdom and a will to subversion that would have made the late, great Luis Bunuel smile. New Yorker Films has been the subject of some criticism for the image quality presented on these DVDs, but it's important to remember that Sembene's visuals are meant to be somewhat rough and grainy, and the source materials used here are almost certainly the best that exist, barring extensive, cost-prohibitive restoration.
In any event, as someone lucky enough to have seen prints of both of these movies up on the silver screen back in the day, I can verify that the transfers on New Yorker's DVDs faithfully translate how these remarkable movies are supposed to look and sound. Be thankful for small favors and grab them now.
Xala and Mandabi, New Yorker Films, www.newyorkerfilms.com