Mandabi (The Money Order) is a landmark in West African filmmaking, the first to be told in the native language Wolof rather than French. It was released in 1968, less than a decade after the country became independent from colonial rule, and bleakly captures the nature of a post-colonial society where younger generations move freely in a large and complicated bureaucracy while others, including older native groups, find themselves completely lost.

Writer-director Ousmane Sembène adapted his own novella (featured in the booklet for this Criterion release) because literature is not a populist format for storytelling, particularly in a country where illiteracy prevented many from even engaging with the work. Many of Senegal’s indigenous population, at the time, were illiterate — left behind by the new world.

The lead character, Ibrahim Dieng (Makhouredia Gueye), is one such man. He’s out of work, with two wives and seven children to feed. Nonetheless he’s proud, strutting his fashion and ordering around his wives. He has close relationships with his neighborhood built on trust and not a little bit of suppressed scorn. His house is all he owns, situated in the poor side of town. He owes money to every shop around. He cannot read.

His nephew Abdu (Mouss Diouf) sends him a money order of 25,000 Francs to distribute among the family, with a little bit earmarked for Dieng’s trouble. Unfortunately the neighborhood learns about the money order before Dieng does. Worse yet, Dieng’s inability to read triggers an avalanche of bureaucratic headaches as he tries to cash the money order. He has no state ID, then he has no photo for an ID and so on and so on. Each of these steps requires money, borrowed from the future. Each of these steps requires trusting a stranger, some of whom see the desperation in Dieng’s eyes and feel their palms start to dry out.

Most of them do, in fact.

Dieng’s journey leads him into crisis, and that’s where Sembène gets to deliver his punchline. It’s bleak and frustrated work with an ending that promises some level of hope, supposing, that is, we can treat one another better. But nothing in the story indicates the system is designed for that. In fact, neither system is depicted; to pit Dieng’s old ways versus the new and assume one is inherently more righteous is to ignore the way he treats his wives, his friends, his neighbors. It’s a captivating portrait of two ways of life pitted head-to-head in the process of what should be a simple retail transaction.

This Criterion package is stellar. Included are two booklets — one featuring an interview with Sembène, a critical essay by Tiana Reid and a new printing of the source novella. The disc itself features a new 4K restoration, as well as several special features that provide historical and cultural context to the film.