It's not easy to pull off a good morality tale. Too often, movies with a message, or about a movement, reduce characters and events to type. They pit unqualified good against unqualified evil -- a dark-narrative temptation -- and, like so much of what issues from Hollywood, do so to ill effect. That's why Moolaadé, the new film from 81-year-old Senegalese writer-director Ousmane Sembene, feels like such an exceptional success. Its moral center is painfully clear, but so is its humanity.
The setting is a peaceful village in Burkina Faso, where neat mud huts, all a soft shade of yellow, stand in beautiful relief against a blazing blue sky. Women in bright fabrics move about, carrying buckets or baskets of eggs, while somewhere a radio plays a line of soft music. The mood is easy but lively, and when a traveling merchant comes to town -- he is known as Mercenaire -- the villagers are pleased and amused. He's got a wagon full of Technicolor temptations (from painted teakettles to Western women's underwear), but most of the women want batteries. After all, they've got to keep their radios running.
Conflict erupts when four young girls run to the doorstep of Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly) and ask for moolaadé, a form of protection. The girls are fleeing "purification," the ritual circumcision that every female child in the village undergoes, and Collé is their only hope. Seven years earlier, Collé refused to allow her daughter to be cut -- an act of defiance that shook the village and that still, we soon see, haunts its populace. Collé grants the young girls moolaadé, drawing a rope across the entryway to her compound. The girls are forbidden to cross it, and members of the community are forbidden to remove the girls from Collé's care.
After this decisive gesture, the movie delves deeply into the conflict over female circumcision. Initially, it's a women's issue, in which the salindana -- the female elders responsible for performing the circumcisions (and, in doing so, carrying on what is seen as a critical tradition) -- demand that Collé release the children. When she won't, the salindana seek help from the governing council of male elders. They can't force Collé to recant (the moolaadé is a spiritual invocation with its own set of rules), but they can shame her husband, advising him to flog her in the public square until she utters the release word. In the meantime, the men confiscate all of the radios, convinced that it's the pernicious influence of the city that has loosened the morals of their women.
This tug-of-war is the central conflict, but a lot more happens on the sidelines. For one thing, there is the relationship between Collé and Hadjatou (Maimouna Hélne Diarra), the first wife of Collé's husband. (Collé is the second wife, and there is another wife after her.) As the first wife, Hadjatou deserves Collé's respect and obedience; Collé is supposed to bend to her elder's will. But Collé is not obedient by nature, especially when she disagrees. To watch these women dance around each other and eventually find common ground is to witness a subtle human negotiation, a real relationship, in which societally sanctioned power must come to terms with personality and feeling.
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Then there's Ibrahima, the village's golden boy, who returns from France in a Western business suit to assume his role as heir apparent. (Before too long, we are given to understand, he will be the head man.) Ibrahima intends to marry Amsatou (Salimata Traoré), Collé's daughter. As everyone in the village knows, Amsatou is not circumcised, and Ibrahima's father forbids the marriage. Ibrahima, however, has seen the world (or at least France) and has new ideas. His marriage, he tells his father, is his own business. Scandal ensues.
Moolaadé is visually gorgeous, with bright, saturated colors waving like flags against the warm yellow of the huts. Director Sembene is fond of humorous imagery, such as an elder who carries a rainbow-colored umbrella to protect himself from the sun. He's also expert at using color to express power, as when the line of women in the salindana arrives at Collé's arch, all of them swimming in yards of blood-red fabric as if testifying to their wounds. Never mind that many village girls have died from the circumcisions: The costumes alone are terrifying.
Like Collé -- a deep character with a bright spirit and a sharp wit -- the film takes a vehement stand against female circumcision, a position that is impossible to contest, at least with Western eyes. Dramatically, this could have been a mistake, but Sembene is so careful to express the humanity of his characters and so good at showing us how his village functions that we accept an entirely different set of traditions and mores not as the Evil Other but as the given. This is the way it is, we see; this is the way it has always been. What we also see is how it becomes possible, after so many years of tradition, for a society to change.