The village in Ousmane Sembene's masterful Moolaadé is dominated by two eerily beautiful structures: a spirit-possessed anthill and an ostrich-egg-crowned mosque, which echo each other in both their stalagmite contours and in the ways they symbolize the pull of differing traditions. Over the course of this vibrant protest film, a third hillock rises up in the central square -- a heap of radios the male village elders have confiscated from the women. These three mounds become Moolaadé's thematic axes, each a dynamic symbol of the process of carving communal meanings out of a bewilderingly complex world.
Often hailed as the father of New African cinema, the 81-year-old Senegalese director calls Moolaadé the second in a planned trilogy on “heroism in daily life.” Coming four years after Faat Kiné, an exploration of the struggles of a Senegalese single mother, Moolaadé is gloriously humanistic, a garrulous and uplifting treatment of a most harrowing subject: female genital mutilation.
Sembene sets his film in a small village in Burkina Faso. Chickens squabble as women work at grindstones and wells, flirting with and warding off the attentions of the local hound dog, a peddler named Mercenaire. Sembene lulls his viewers with these idylls of rural life, until a band of panicked little girls show up on the doorstep of Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the film's heroine. The children have fled from their purification ceremony, which centers on genital cutting. Fueled by fear and by the knowledge that Collé refused to have her own daughter cut years ago, they beg Collé for Moolaadé, or protection.
Collé ties a colored rope across the gate to her family compound, thus invoking the anthill spirit's protection -- and revealing that Sembene's seemingly naïve-realist portrayal of this village has been constructed with all the elegant, stagy formalism of a Bertolt Brecht play. This is a movie that seamlessly combines elements of the real with a knowing theatricality, that gives talismanic stage conventions of music, dance, and oral tradition the ability to shape a classic, archetypal story that is still deeply personal at its core.
Moolaadé is that rarest of movies -- a message film that evades facile polemics, that shouts out its giant themes of resistance, heroism, and cultural conflict through minutely observed portraits of individuals. Sembene has an ear for the rhythms of conversation, the way a character can be pulled by status, individual loyalty, love, and fear all at the same time. Menace coils under everyday politeness, and violence and joy can turn on a dime, as when Collé grabs a machete to confront the red-robed priestesses who have come to claim the escaped girls. After she succeeds in chasing the women off, she does a swaying dance with her weapon, turning it into a gleaming prop in her performance.
While the film draws on certain schematic conventions -- an evil villain; a courageous, unbowed heroine -- Sembene isn't interested in pitting tradition against modernity, men against women, and declaring a single victor. When the men who oppose Collé rail against her actions as being a slap in the face of custom, they are reminded that she has invoked an equally ancient tradition to protect the children. Mercenaire is an intriguingly ambiguous, modernizing figure -- a swindler and an audacious flirt who is driven by moral impulses even as he causes ripples of unquietness throughout the village.
No character is more compelling than Collé herself, her body scarred from both her own cutting (complications from which resulted in the stillbirth of two daughters) and a cesarean section that produced her one surviving child. She is convinced of the power of language, narrative, information; she's a loud voice of protest, and of stunningly eloquent silence. Her fierce engagement with the outside world, her determination to reinterpret customs and weave a new story with other women -- her mouthy intellect -- is awe-inspiring, especially when the forces of tradition have sought to turn her into nothing but an inscribed, excised body, a text marked by everyone but her own self.
Collé is a perfect heroine for Sembene, who combines the creation of compassionate, complex characters with his epic aims, who uses generations-old storytelling traditions to further his cinematic drive. Change is inevitable, Sembene tells his viewers; the radios and TVs will come with both their trashy allures and their vital information. But age-old ways and modern ones, he seems to say, can exist side by side, inform one another while creating an even richer, more just, more complete reality. Especially with someone like Collé -- author and mother, forging both her village's human history and its evolving myth -- to shepherd them through.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.