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Horror in a pastoral setting

Times Staff Writer

IT is altogether fitting that the socially progressive Ousmane Sembene, the father of the sub-Saharan cinema, would, with his superb ""Moolaade,” make an eloquent protest against the archaic tradition of female “circumcision.” It is still practiced in 38 of the 54 African nations recognized by the United Nations, putting at risk an estimated 2 million girls annually, according to the World Health Organization.

Sembene is a poet of the cinema who warmly embraces life in its joys as well as its sorrows, and the world of “Moolaade” has a sunny, pastoral beauty. In evoking the leisurely, ancient way of life in a rural village of well-maintained mud-walled structures with thatched roofs, Sembene makes the horrors of genital mutilation, called, ironically, “purification,” carried out in the most primitive manner, seem all the more hideous. Men invoke Islamic belief in perpetuating the tradition, intended to diminish female sexual drive and make wives more faithful. Death is a not uncommon consequence, and the procedure increases the risks in childbirth.

Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly) is the vivacious second of the three wives of a leading citizen of the village. After losing her first two children to the effects of her genital excision and having to give birth to her third by a caesarean section, Colle succeeded in persuading her husband to forgo the excision for their daughter Amasatou (Salimata Traore). One day four little girls, who look to be 7 to 9, seek refuge from the unspeakably painful and dangerous ritual. (Two other little girls, also fleeing genital mutilation, are believed to have run away to the city.) Unhesitatingly, Colle takes them in and soon invokes the tradition of moolaade (sanctuary) to protect them from their mothers and the Salidana, the six red-robed women who perform the mutilation.

While Colle’s husband is away on business, the village elders are outraged by Colle’s action. But they also understand that the invoking of moolaade is to be respected as seriously as the circumcision. Meanwhile, the son of the village leader and the fiance of Amasatou returns from his studies in Paris. Colle’s stance has called attention to Amasatou’s “shameful” uncircumcised status and thus endangered her engagement. What are the elders to do but insist that upon his return the husband of Colle demand that she speak the special word that will lift the moolaade?

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Suspense and tension build in the most effective roundabout fashion as Sembene captures the rhythms and routines of village life in which a relieving humor emerges in everyday encounters and behavior. Especially revealing are the shifting relationships between Colle and her husband’s formidable first wife, Hadjatou (Maimouna Helene Diarra) and between Colle and Amasatou. The film’s most complex character emerges as an itinerant merchant (Dominique T. Zeida). He’s a flirt and a price gouger who has the perspective of someone who’s lived in the larger world. Unaccountably, Amasatou’s fiance, expected to play a leading role in the impending drama, disappears from the film until its climax.

There’s such a rich sense of the fullness of life in “Moolaade” that it sustains those passages that are truly and necessarily harrowing if Sembene is to convey the full horror of female mutilation. In 2000, Sembene, now 81, returned to the screen with his first work in nearly 20 years, “Faat-Kine,” about a hard-pressed woman who works at a Dakar gas station. That film became the first in a trilogy calling attention to the heroism of ordinary women. “Moolaade” is the second; the third, which takes place in a city and deals with the government, will be called “The Brotherhood of Rats.”

*

‘Moolaade’

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Strong adult themes, way too intense for children

Fatoumata Coulibaly...Colle Ardo Gallo Sy

Maimouna Helene Diarra...Hadjatou

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Salimata Traore... Amasatou

Dominique T. Zeida...Mercenaire

A New Yorker Films release of a Film Doomirew production. Writer-director Ousmane Sembene. Executive production company Cine Sud (France). Cinematographer Dominique Gentil. Editor Abdellatif Raiss. Music Boncana Maiga. Production designer Joseph Kpobly. In Jula, with English subtitles. Exclusively at the NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 281-8223.


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