“If you want ancestors to help you, help yourself first.” (Mbanick)
The Price of Forgiveness (also known as Ndeysaan) is perhaps one of the saddest, most beautiful and most thoughtful movies of 2002. It follows the lives of a small village of made of members of the Lébou ethnic group of fishermen on the Southern coast of Senegal. It focuses on the love triangle between a beautiful young girl, named Maxoye, and the two men competing for her love, Mbanick, and his best friend, Yatma. The movie is based on a novel written by Mbissane Ngom and directed by Mansour Sora Wade. They are both members of the Lébou ethnic group and grew up in similar environments and followed the same traditions and customs as the characters featured in the film. While the movie storyline is quite simplistic, it compensates by building very complex and challenging characters.
The movie begins and ends with an old man who introduces the main characters and then summarizes the conclusions. His story, and implicitly the movie, begins in a timeless West African village in days of uncertainty when a dense fog has covered the entire village and the members of the community are marching along the shore asking for forgiveness from their ancestors, and making animal sacrifices so that the fog can fade away. A foggy weather might not be a reason for panic in most villages, but it is a life-threatening factor for isolated communities such as Timberling, that are completely reliable on fish and sea food.
Mbanick is the son of Timberling’s marabout (a religious leader and a teacher), Baay Sogi, who is on the death bad. Mbanick does not believe in either potions or witchcraft, which brings him severe criticisms from other members of the village and puts him in danger of becoming a pariah. But the situation abruptly changes after his father passes away. As the villagers are getting panicked by the prospect of not having a new leader, Mbanick is overtaken by strange disease as his father’s spirit enters him. He then makes a canoe out of the tree under which his father is buried, and consequently sails out into the sea (the legend has it he is the descendent of a man who fought a shark and broke a form of truce with that shark). The next day, he returns with the boat full of fish and therefore saves the village from starvation. At which point, the fog miraculously lifts, and Mbanick is acknowledged as the new marabout and the hero of the village.
Besides becoming the most respected man in the village he also receives the blessing to marry Maxoye, one of the most beautiful women in the village who is at the age of getting married. But Yatma, Mbanick’s best friend is also in love with Maxoye, and after watching his friend making love with her, he gets so upset that he kills Mbanick with a rock and then deposes of his body into the sea. At which point most Westerner viewers will get appalled by what is happening.
What follows next is the most dramatic and memorable part of the movie. Despite the fact that most villagers know or at least suspect the truth about Mbanick’s death, his killer is neither imprisoned nor publicly denounced for his deed. To make things even more confusing, while waiting to give birth to Mbanick’s son and under pressure from Yatma’s father, a respected local healer, Maxoye actually accepts to marry Yatma. But after the marriage ritual is over, she confesses to Yatma that the only reason why she did that was to see him suffer as he raises the child of the man who he killed. The second part of the movie is one full of symbolisms and is dominated by the Yatma’s quest for redemption. He does everything he can to win back the respect of his wife and the village and raises Mbanick’s as if it were his own. He also participates in a colorful ritual in which he, dressed as a lion, is tamed by the village. Eventually, he is forgiven by all and has his own son with Maxoye. That is of no good, as the sea will eventually ask for his life for what he did to Mbanick, perhaps a sign that whatever he did to make up for Mbanick’s death was not enough. Which kind of makes his quest for redemption useless and the moral fabric of the movie shaky.
Why watch the movie?
While the idea that a woman could marry her husband’s killer might seem ridiculous to many viewers, it speaks for a time when conflicts were settled exactly that way, namely the pre-colonial era. In fact, records show, this is in fact how two families (the one of the victim and the one of the killer) would often settle such an affair, just that in most cases, some form of remuneration (land, cows, goats etc) would be granted to the victim’s family, aspect that is not actually explored in the movie. This brilliant movie brings to life such an unthinkable hypothesis, gives it meaning and context and shows how life goes on in unexpected and unpredictable ways. The Price of Forgiveness is structured in such a way that it actually seems to be a story told by a West African griot, which gives the movie authenticity, cohesion and an astonishing authority. Another reason why the movie is worth watching is the beautiful original soundtrack created by my two favorite Senegalese singers Youssou N’Dour and Wasis Diop. Lastly, watch it because it depicts a surprising way in which the forces of the supernatural and the ones of reason coexist without canceling each other.
And if all these reasons are not enough, watch the movie simply because it is ambiguously brilliant.
The movie is rated 10/10