Barthelémy, now a French citizen, has returned to Senegal for his father’s funeral. Pierre Henri Thioune, “Guelwaar” (meaning, Noble One), was a district leader whose especial cause was foreign aid, which he inveighed against for costing people dignity. Senegal won its independence from France in 1960, but assistance since then has kept Senegal dependent on the outside world. Yet Ousmane Sembène tweaks the political underpinnings of this psychological concern by showing how reliant on others Guelwaar remains even in death. Someone’s inability to read French(!) has resulted in Guelwaar’s burial in a Muslim cemetery. Guelwaar was Catholic, as are those now mourning his suspicious death. It falls to Guelwaar’s sons to get officials to unbury his father’s corpse so it can be buried where it belongs.
But things happen slowly in Senegal. Part of the painful comedy of this glorious satire hinges on the pace at which things move. This pace suits the film’s exquisite formality and rigor, as well as the delicate issues involved. The majority Muslim community must be convinced by officials and politicians, all variously motivated, of what’s what. Even the imam initially believes that pesky Catholics are looking for an excuse to violate the Islamic cemetery’s sacred ground. The Muslims insist that the right person, one of their own, is buried in the grave where they are being told Guelwaar is buried. They are poised to shed blood as a result.
“When a vulture attacks your enemy, that could have been you,” the imam concludes, “so do something to get the vulture off him.”
A truckload of charitable commodities is discarded. Catholics pass back their cross as they proceed to the truck; the cross thus recedes, releasing irony’s undercutting. The mass activity we see is a tribute to Guelwaar, not a decision.
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