MOOLAADE written and directed by Ousmane Sembene. A Seville Pictures release. 124 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (April 15) at Cinematheque. Indie & Rep Films, page 109. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
A drama about female genital mutilation in Africa might seem like a tough sell, but Moolaadé – the 10th film by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene – is a shocker.
It's bursting with more colour, spirit and warmth than most films can ever hope to achieve.
In a small village in Burkina Faso, Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the proud, pipe-smoking second wife of a village elder, decides to give shelter to four young girls who flee the village's "purification ceremony," which involves cutting their genitals.
This potentially deadly custom is mandatory if a girl wants to marry. The procedure has an unspoken consequence: it prevents her from feeling sexual pleasure, thus ensuring (the patriarchal assumption goes) that she'll remain faithful to her man.
Collé's already a subject of village gossip, since years earlier she refused to have her own daughter, Amsatou (Salimata Traoré), cut. That soon becomes a problem when Amsatou's intended – now a wealthy, educated Paris businessman in a suit – returns home to marry her.
What Collé doesn't realize is that by sheltering the other girls and invoking the titular Moolaadé (a protective spirit), she's openly defying the village's social order, which throws everything out of whack.
This might seem like a lot of plot and backstory, but the octogenarian writer/director lets the details unfold as they do in life, through casual conversation, at the marketplace, while talking with friends.
He crams the screen with joyous life, creating complex characters such as the town peddler, a womanizer who we learn was demoted for his own act of defiance years earlier.
And he interweaves a brilliant story line about the village men confiscating the women's radios because they believe the women are getting their subversive ideas from the airwaves.
The image of a heap of radios burning, some still playing, with the village mosque in the background, is stunning.
Not that Sembene presents a one-sided political argument. There's a reverence and respect for village customs that can be found in even the simplest exchanges among the characters. The king's welcome the villagers give the Paris businessman is one of the most thrilling sequences on a screen today.
But the formidable women dominate the film, especially Coulibaly, who radiates warmth and intelligence, and the head of the purification ceremony, played fiercely by Mah Compaoré.
Moolaadé is a clear-eyed look at how to reconcile progress and tradition, society's rules and one's own heart.
It's one of the best films of 2005.