Le Franc, Mambéty’s last film, focuses on Marigo (Madieye Masamba Dieye), an absent-minded eccentric, who among other mishaps tries to put out a cigarette butt with his bare heel. He needs to retrieve from his landlady (Aminata Fall) his beloved congoma, a musical instrument that looks like a modified cardboard box, which the formidable woman has confiscated until he pays his rent. Well advised by his friend – a dwarf who makes a living by selling lottery tickets –, Marigo buys the lucky number although he cannot prove his win because he has glued his ticket onto his door under a poster of, Yaadikoone Ndiaye, a historical character who is his role model.
Marigo dreams of becoming a famous musician and simultaneously of playing the role of a wealthy and generous Muslim. In the final sequence, he is waddling in the rock pools by the seashore, hoping to detach the winning ticket from his door. Eventually, he retrieves his ticket yet various shots suggest that in so doing he loses more important values.
Le Franc, a fable released after the 50% devaluation of the Franc CFA currency that was announced in fourteen countries of the West African Franc zone on 12 January 1994, could be subtitled ‘A day in the life of a would-be holy man’. On the one hand, when the dwarf character invites Marigo to the restaurant, quoting the slogan of the day (‘Devaluation – Consume African made’) and, as though mocking international monetary decisions, the dinner consists of peanuts. On the other hand, the title of the film refers not only to the trauma of the 1994 devaluation, but also to the ‘frank’ man, both brave and provocative, in the style of Yaadikoone Ndiaye, the legendary swindler who, like Robin Hood, was reputed to steal money from the rich for redistribution to the poor. Every morning, Marigo’s responds to the call for prayer by bowing to his door, which is adorned with the poster of ‘the protector of children and of the weakest’ – his guide in the quest for justice.
After his early routine, Marigo wanders around the city, dreaming of taking on the role of a wealthy and influential Muslim. The desire for notoriety through business affiliation to Muslim brotherhoods has been shown to be the reason for Islamic expansion in West Africa. There is confusion in Marigo’s moral allegiances. The disentangling of his confusion, which is expressed by poetic editing, leads to some lesson to be learnt from his actions, hence my notion that this film is not only a poetic comedy, but also a fable that warns the weak against the squandering of their moral values.
The cinematography emphasizes the competition between the voice of Islam in the calls for prayers and the lure of instant wealth promised by the winning number of the National Lottery, repeated again and again by the dwarf. The sight of the cripple lying on a window seal and nervously shaking his foot alternates with the shot of the winning number on the screen (555) to the sound of the call for prayer. The close-up of the dwarf’s sacrilegious foot emphasizes the subversive preference for money over religion. Capitalism competes with Islam, as can also be seen in inscriptions on the sides of buses where the logo of the national lottery, LONASE (Loterie Nationale du Sénégal) is next to the religious incantation transcribed into Latin letters ‘Alhamdoulihali (God be blessed)’. Elsewhere, in an emphatic montage of shots, Marigo is filmed standing with his arms wide open against the background of the BCEAO (Central Bank of West African States) and dangling his prayer beads. Inserts of bank notes appear while jazz is laced with the call for prayer on the sound-track. My interpretation of the jazzy saxophone music, as a signifier of capitalist temptation that distracts worshippers from their duty, differs from the director’s intentions. Indeed, Mambéty explains that the rich sound of the saxophone celebrates the creator and is comparable to the muezzin’s chant. Yet the blues sung in English and Wolof by Marigo’s landlady invokes American consumerism.
Flashback and flashforward inserts point to the contradiction between the genuine Marigo, the one who dreams of being a philanthropist and griot, and the social climber who thinks that money will give him the dignity of a holy man. The most obvious symbols of loss of ideal are expressed by the shots of the Yaadikoone Ndiaye poster and Marigo’s bowler hat floating away in the surf at the end of the film while the man rejoices over his retrieved lottery ticket. One could purport that Marigo has slowly forgone his early dream of ‘protecting the weak’. The flight of seagulls in the middle of the final laughing and praying session of Marigo trying to unglue his lottery ticket from his door echoes previous images of his powers as a magician. In the past, the musician appeared to let flocks of tiny yellow birds fly out of his congoma to enchant children. Now, the predatory seagulls may symbolize Marigo’s squandering of ideals.
Le Franc, like Mambéty’s previous films (Touki-Bouki and Hyenas), shows that monetary greed threatens African spiritual values. This medium-length fiction, which won many prizes including the best short at Fespaco 1995 and the Golden Gate Award (San Francisco), is also the legacy of three Senegalese artists now deceased, Mambéty, Aminata Fall (the landlady) and Dieye (Marigo), a generous musician who used to sing for sick children in hospitals.