It Takes a Village 

Ancient and modern Africa collide in the warmly human Moolaadé

Ancient and modern Africa collide in the warmly human Moolaadé

Forget Elektra, or even Ziyi Zhang's blind assassin in House of Flying Daggers. If the toughest woman on movie screens right now never throws a punch, neither does she back down from them when the cause is just. The woman is Collé, a middle-aged matron in the African village of Djerisso. She's played by Fatoumata Coulibaly, whose chiseled features suggest immovable force—an ebony bulwark. One day four girls rush into her home. The girls, no older than grade-schoolers, have run for their lives from a female-circumcision ceremony. Their elders call it "purification," but the girls know what it really is: mutilation and agony.

The girls also know that Collé, the favored wife of a village leader, had the nerve to keep her own daughter from getting "cut." They beg for her help. Soon after, Collé goes to the entrance of her home, drapes a frail rope across it and invokes the tribal custom of "moolaadé," or protection. It is a spell only she can break by uttering a single word, if someone can force it out of her. Then she waits for the angry villagers to arrive on her doorstep.

Moolaadé, the latest film in Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene's nearly 40-year career, lays out its conflicts in its first few minutes. It spends the rest of the film getting us to feel them in our bones. The movie isn't a problem drama, like the current Hotel Rwanda: it doesn't provide statistics about female genital mutilation, one of the sickest practices to survive the 20th century, or even describe the rite itself. It's a warm, eloquent and righteously angry human comedy about the folly of trying to suppress the insuppressible—whether it's a single strong woman or a dozen, or the grasping reach of modern times.

A tumultuous living organism of a community, Sembene's Djerisso sometimes resembles Spike Lee's Brooklyn—not least of all for its almost psychedelically vivid color. It has the same mix of fools and wise elders, and it's also a tinderbox of resentments awaiting a spark. It also has boomboxes and radios—the village's one concession to the outside world, other than a sweet-talking crook who runs a mercantile. Otherwise, the main features are a mosque and a nearby anthill that looks like its scale model. The dirt heap supposedly represents the fate of anyone who dares break the moolaadé.

Though the other women sympathize with Collé, they have not only gone along with the tradition but submitted their own daughters. But the menfolk realize her resistance is the long fuse on a bomb. So they strike back at the imagined source of the village's disharmony: the women's radios. Soon the transistors sputter and crackle in a heap, right alongside the mosque and the anthill—and the women react with outrage.

Like the rope that protects the children, the mosque, the anthill and the radios are totems that have only as much power as people are willing to give them. Sembene, the 81-year-old director who's sometimes called the father of African cinema, is fascinated by the last stand of the ancient against the modern, even though the fight's already been lost. Yes, global media will chip away at the village's identity; yes, men and women both will benefit from the end of some traditions. As TV antennae sprout in the movie's rural Burkina Faso, Sembene regards these culture shifts as facts of life, neither good nor evil, ambiguous in their blessings and curses.

He is not ambiguous at all, though, when defending his characters' hard-protected humanity. There is a terrible loss near the end of Moolaadé, one that wrenches the savagery of the circumcision rite out of the abstract; it's the point where a problem drama might end with a freeze-frame and a closing statistic. Instead, Collé and the village's other women assert their power in an overwhelmingly joyous ending that cuts across lines of gender and tradition. And a situation that begins as Greek tragedy ends as Shakespearean comedy. It's easy to mistake the unpretentious directness of Sembene's direction as plain or even primitive: surely art can't be this simple. But only a gifted and humane artist could address such grim subject matter and produce such unqualified happiness.

—Jim Ridley

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