Octogenarian Senegalese director Ousmane Sambene has made a colorful, and in many ways religiously and politically bold, statement against the “feminine circumcision,” generally called genital mutilation nowadays, that remains a tradition in many African societies. But although “Moolaade,” which is a term indicating a sort of sanctuary, is about a difficult subject and contains elements of violence and even murder, it’s not overall a gruesome or even downbeat film. To the contrary, it’s a story of courage, resistance and the inevitability of change–and in the end the viewer will feel more uplifted than depressed by it.
Sambene’s script focuses on a strong-willed village woman named Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the second of three wives of a relatively tolerant local tribesman, who had years earlier refused to allow her daughter Amsatou (Salimata Traore) to be circumcised by the local priestesses because an earlier child had died in the ceremony. Now she’s approached by a group of young girls who have fled the ritual and ask for her protection. In her husband’s absence (he’s just departed on a journey on the community’s behalf), she takes the girls into their house and declares the place a sanctuary for them through the tradition of “moolaade,” a belief that derives from the death of their village founder and associated with a huge anthill situated by the mosque. Colle’s intransigence continues even after her husband returns and is prodded by his rigid older brother and the village chief to force her to retract the protection. (They go so far as to beat her, in what is surely the film’s harshest scene.) The situation is complicated by the fact that the chief’s son, just returned from Europe and thus more progressively inclined than his father, is betrothed to Amsatou, but the planned union is endangered by her lack of circumcision. Also on hand is a quasi-outsider, a worldly merchant who’s known as a womanizer but is disturbed by the treatment women receive in this supposedly pristine society, and who suffers when he interferes. Colle’s attitude sparks a women’s resistance movement in the village (shades of “Lysistrata”!), which the men attempt to suppress by destroying all the radios in the town (the source, they believe, of the dangerous notions that have infected the women’s minds)–an uprising that in the end finds a few converts among the menfolk and closes the film with the suggestion that change for the better is coming, however much the traditionalists might try to halt it.
There will be some problems for western audiences in watching “Moolaade.” The foreign beliefs and practices at the heart of the script go largely unexplained, leaving one to parse them out as the film moves along. The narrative also lacks smoothness, so that you may feel that some scenes are insufficiently fleshed out (the fate of the merchant is a typical example). The exuberant finale, moreover, seems more obligatory than earned. Still, as a whole it’s well worth visiting. Sembene’s filmmaking is refined and subtle, and though some of the performances seem more than a little amateurish, that make the simple, straightforward style of the picture even more effective. The locale, moreover, is itself fascinating. And one is unlikely to forget the very last shot, in which the mosque spire, bearing a symbol of the village’s traditions, is replaced by a shot of a television antenna, the avatar of a coming new age. It’s a film that masks its urgency and intensity with a cool, matter-of-fact approach, and is all the better for it.