Movie review: 'Moolaade'

4 stars (out of 4)

"Moolaade"--the African film that took Cannes Film Festival critics by storm in May--is a beautiful picture with a great heart, a classic-to-be with a common touch. Watching it, one feels immersed in the rhythms, joys and anxieties of a culture halfway across the world--in this case a small African village in the throes of a momentous revolt against custom by its women and girls.

It's a great experience, and the latest work by Senegal's protean writer-director Ousmane Sembene, a legendary artist, now 81, who is often regarded as the father of all modern African cinema. "Moolaade" (which means sanctuary or protection) is both a perfect introduction to his work for those who don't know it, and a grand summation of his career for those who do.

Sembene's 16th movie, which won the 2004 Grand Prize of Cannes' "Un Certain Regard" section, takes as its subject a small African village in which the African custom of female circumcision holds sway and in which one housewife, Colle Ardo Gallo Sy (Fatoumata Coulibaly), decides to act against the brutal practice. She takes in, under the right of "moolaade," six fugitive young girls who have fled from female elders about to mutilate them. In doing so, Colle defies tradition and tweaks power--in the same way she once protected her own daughter, Amasatou (Salimata Traore).

It's not without cost. For tribal conservatives, circumcision is a religious and medical necessity. Even if a high percentage of the girls die under the knife, not to be "purified" means that a girl is "bilakoro," or unclean. Since the unnamed village is rigidly traditional and patriarchal, Colle's actions throw the community into turmoil. The male leaders and female elders both condemn her and Colle's previously tolerant husband and household start to turn against her as well.

The return of Amasatou's Paris-educated fiancé also heats up the pot. A counter-revolt erupts, in which the husbands confiscate their wives' radios and TVs--thought to be dangerously anti-religious. And Colle herself suffers increasing pressure, humiliation and physical threat. Watching from the outskirts is the cynical local outdoor merchant, Mercenaire, who comes from the world outside and has a more urbane perspective on things. But in the village, the only power is the ancient structure that Colle has defied and that now marshals forces against her.

"Moolaade" is a simple-appearing film with complex themes, which might be mistaken at first for some kind of African sitcom. There's a brash, bright fullness to the performances, a languorous, eye-level ease to the filmmaking that suggests popular TV rather than an expensive feature film--and Sembene, a lifelong progressive who wants his work to reach the African masses as well as foreigners, obviously planned it that way.

The characters--most notably Coulibaly as the unintentional revolutionary leader Colle, and Dominique T. Zeida as the amiably lecherous Mercenaire, register so strongly on their first appearance that we're immediately ready to laugh or cry with them, and Sembene eventually puts us through an emotional wringer. The initial tone seems comic, a ruckus that will easily be resolved. Only gradually does the standoff turn darker and more serious.

"Moolaade" is an old man's film, but that's not at all a bad thing. Like the later work of Ingmar Bergman, John Ford and Portugal's great nonagenarian Manoel de Oliveira, it's masterful, simple and wise. Sembene, whose first film, the trail-blazing "Black Girl," appeared in 1966, has regularly tackled the problems and conflicts of modernity and cultural clash in Africa. Here, he exposes a real-life injustice, in which more contemporary international values are part of what inspire Colle and the others to revolt. However simple the story first appears, its turns are riveting, its consequences moving.

You may not have seen any of Sembene's 16 previous films, or read any of his novels, but you should be aware of his worldwide renown and influence. Here, without any compromise, he captures and captivates, telling a tale of contemporary urgency and fable-like timelessness. "Moolaade" crystallizes the sympathies and strategies of a lifetime. It's a great work that opens up a whole culture for us.

"Moolaade"

Directed, produced and written by Ousmane Sembene; photographed by Dominique Gentil; edited by Abdellatif Raiss; production designed by Joseph Kpobly; sound by Denis Guilherm; music by Boncana Maiga; co-produced by Thierry Lenouvel. In Bambara and French, with English subtitles. A New Yorker Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:04. MPAA: Unrated (contains sexual scenes, nudity, obscenity, violence and overall intensity.)

Colle Ardo Gallo Sy - Fatoumata Coulibaly
Hadjatou - Maimouna Helene Diarra
Amasatou - Salimata Traore
Mercenaire - Dominique T. Zeida
Circumcision Elder - Mah Compaore
Alima Ba - Aminata Dao

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