Senegal’s Djibril Diop Mambety, who died in 1998 of lung cancer (he was only 53), was born near Dakar in Colobane, a town you might assume to be fictional after seeing his 1992 comedy Hyenas: Here, the woebegone village is a fable-ready exemplar of poverty, where City Hall is having its furniture repossessed and civic leaders couldn’t line their pockets if they wanted to. When word spreads of an impending visit from a Colobane native who left decades ago and is now “richer than the World Bank,” viewers may expect a Preston Sturges-like romp through small-town venality. What they’ll actually get is stranger and sadder, a gimlet-eyed allegory about the influence of foreign money that, though adapted from a Swiss play (The Visit, by Friedrich Durrenmatt), feels custom-made for a continent struggling with its relationship to strings-attached aid from countries that were once invaders. The freshly restored film should attract a new generation of fans, perhaps larger than the last, in a nationwide tour mounted by Metrograph Pictures, whose NYC theater serves as opening venue.
Dramaan (Mansour Diouf) is the village’s grocer/bartender, who is used to customers who buy drinks on credit and used to the dirty looks his wife gives him for keeping those tabs open. But what’s a man to do when much of his clientele dresses in literal sackcloth?
A wicked skewering of both the rich and those who seek their handouts.
In his youth, Dramaan loved a girl named Linguere, who left town and (we never learn how) became rich and famous. When locals learn the now-elderly woman (Ami Diakhate) intends to visit Colobane, they gather to discuss how they might best flatter her into sharing some of her riches. The mayor (Mamadou Mahouredia Gueye) so values Dramaan’s input that he declares his job should go to the shopkeeper when he retires in a few months. Dramaan’s the most loved man around. For a minute.
For it turns out that Linguere, who arrives with an exotic entourage and an aristocrat’s sense of entitlement, is happy to donate an outrageous sum of money to Colobane, provided she gets the town’s court in return — and can give Dramaan the death penalty.
She remembers much more about her departure than Dramaan has recounted — including an unplanned pregnancy, a father who denied paternity, and a trial where false witnesses branded her a promiscuous liar. In shame, she fled the village and lived as a prostitute “from continent to continent.” Now she has the means to buy back her reputation — or, as the judge she intends to put in charge of the court puts it, “to clear her name for eternity … clean, clean, clean …” (The director plays this small role, his quiet demeanor hiding a cynic’s certainty about how things will turn out.)
“My task was to identify the enemy of humankind,” Mambety said about this film: “Money, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. I think my target is clear.” And though the citizens and rulers of Colobane pay lip service to the rule of law, Linguere’s lucre poisons them immediately. To his horror, Dramaan finds that his customers’ tastes have grown exotic: They’re putting rare liquor and tobacco on their tabs now, assuring him they’ll pay up before long; the town throws a fair in which a truck full of air conditioners and refrigerators make a bigger impression than the roller coaster.
Diouf initially plays his part in a pantomime of panic, running hither and thither across town in an attempt to escape his fate. But the movie — whose opening frames compared a mob of citizens to an unstoppable elephant parade, and which frequently cuts to images of the four-legged scavengers for which it is named — understands that, once they’ve imagined money in their pockets, there’s no refusing Linguere’s demands.
Despite moments of comic exaggeration — as when the mayor, while reassuring Dramaan that justice can’t be bought, ogles a brand-new model of the civic buildings he dreams of — Mambety lets a restrained, almost contented fatalism settle over the film and its hero. Dramaan rises above concern for himself, insisting only that no one be able to deny the moral capitulation taking place. He did, after all, do something truly terrible to a woman he claimed to love. “I’m not complaining … I will not resist,” he eventually declares, but he stops short of doing the villagers’ work for them. If they, like many real-world African governments, choose to sell their autonomy for temporary relief from poverty, he wants to make sure they call the bargain what it is. Mambety’s beautifully shot and colorfully performed fable entertains, but its final frames are no laughing matter.
Distributor: Metrograph Pictures
Cast: Mansour Diouf, Ami Diakhate, Mamadou Mahouredia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Djibril Diop Mambety
Director-Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambety
Producers: Pierre-Alain Meier, Alain Rozanes
Executive producer: Samba Felix Ndiaye
Director of photography: Matthias Kalin
Costume designer: Oumou Sy
Editor: Loredana Cristelli
Composer: Wasis Diop
In Wolof and French