#83 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series counting down the most acclaimed films of the previous decade.
With its sun-dappled village huts, its jaggedly Gaudi-like mosque (topped with a 150-year-old ostrich egg), its gorgeously bright primary colors, its grins and laughter, Ousmane Sembene’s Mooladé is a film of immense good cheer. It is also a movie about female genital mutilation, in which the tortured deaths of several young girls are acknowledged, in which a husband whips his wife mercilessly in the public square, in which a man is murdered outright, in which a brutal system of female subjegation, social oppression, fearful superstition, and child abuse is maintained, exalted, and bloodily enforced. But Sembene’s film is neither superficially naive, nor self-importantly morose. It is manifestly the movie of an 81-year-old master, simple in presentation but echoing with depths, observing tragedy with a sad smile, and buffonery with the indulgence of a satirist – affectionate but hardly gentle. Despite his knowledge of human weakness, despite his awareness of the power of the elders and the men and the female priestesses, Sembene offers up optimism, not the avoiding, weak kind but the earned kind, the kind that rests in reservoirs of strength, for which good humor is not a front but rather a manifestation of indomitable resilience and wisdom.
Moolaadé, which is probably the most well-known/popular African film in the United States (aside from The Gods Must Be Crazy), begins with several young girls fleeing their “purification” ritual. They take shelter with Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the second wife of Ciré (Rasmane Ouedraogo), because she refused to have her own daughter “purified.” Collé institutes a mooladé, a protective spell over the girls (four in all – two others fled elsewhere, eventually discovered in tragic circumstances) – the spell is physically represented by a colorful rope which is stretched across Collé’s doorstep. This is just one instance of color and object being used to represent an idea – in Mooladé, the concepts are all physicalized in a fashion at once ritualistic and thoroughly cinematic. There is also more than a touch of irony in Collé’s protective strategy: she is cleverly circumventing one tradition (the Islam-connected circumcision rituals) with an even older one (the invocation of a magical spell), relying on the villagers’ superstition to advance what is in fact a modern agenda.
Ciré has tolerated Collé’s defiance before – allowing his daughter to avoid circumcision – and tells her she is his favorite wife (indeed, we’re led to believe, this is partly because of her dynamism and willpower). But now she seems to have gone too far, and at his brother-in-law’s request he forcefully warns and threatens her, encouraging her to utter the one word which will break the spell. Meanwhile, modernity and tradition clash on other fronts throughout the village: Ibrahima (Théophile Sowié), the chief’s son, has just returned from France and is supposed to take Colle’s daughter as a wife – though his father objects because she is not circumcised; “Mercenaire” (Dominique Zeïda) sells Western and local goods out of a tent in the village center, flirts with all the women, and cheats his customers, but turns out to be the most honorable man in this society (for which he pays the consequences); and the villagers, particularly the women, hover around their radios with a sense of relief, only to have their husbands remove and burn the machines in the wake of Collé’s defiance.
All these threads unwind at a leisurely pace, without the tension of the central situation ever fully dissipating. Indeed, as disagreements grow between these seemingly agreeable people (the elder men, while arrogant and manipulative, initially come off more as – sometimes lovable – buffoons than supervillains), the unease only increases. Finally, there are deaths, beatings, and burnings to contend with, but the film does not end in gloom and defeat. Instead, the women are finally empowered to stand up in solidarity, first against the priestesses, then against the men, who are not directly involved in the mutilation but whose rule enforces the ritual. The ending is rather didactic – it presents the issue starkly, with the women articulating their points one by one (most Islamic law does not condone this practice, many women have died from the procedure, live births become difficult afterwards, etc.) and the men digging in their heels, with many seeming a bit more one-dimensional than they had before. Yet the enthusiasm of the women, dancing, singing, jeering their husbands and fathers after years of pent-up rage, is infectious and the conclusion works powerfully on its own terms.
Politically, the film is a fascinating case study. Sembene (who died in 2007), a lifelong Marxist, was also a materialist and humanist which puts him at odds with those who take a protective stance towards all cultures and see a relativity as establishing different values for different groups of people. Not only does he refuse to condone a practice simply because it is “traditional”, he actually celebrates the technology and even Westernization of the village (one can read ambiguity into some of his juxtapositions and statements, but not nearly as much as in, say, Xala, his 1975 political satire which mocked revolutionists-turned-politicians as aping their former conquerors). In its final moments, the film cuts from the ostrich egg atop the mosque to a TV antenna; conditioned by an ingrained skepticism of technology and cheerful notions of “progress,” one could read this gesture as slightly tongue-in-cheek. Yet in the context of the film itself, in which the women and Ibrahima criticize the elders’ desire to cut the village off from the outside world, in which radios and televisions are presented as escape hatches, both soothing and exciting as they pull signals from the ether, this final image seems proudly defiant, and oddly moving. Much like Mooladé itself: at once Brechtian and cheerfully naive, politically savvy yet un-self consciously exuberant, morally centered yet sensuously open-minded and sensitive to the beauty even the figures and moments of brutality and despair (the red robes of the priestesses, the flicker of the radio bonfire, the white faces of the lynch mob chasing Mercinaire out of town). It’s a wonderful movie and if, in discussing its story and social aspects, I’ve neglected its aesthetic pleasures and human charms do not be deceived. No defensive curse here: Sembene’s stance is open and welcoming. He – and I – invite you to experience this film for yourself.