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'Moolaade': Acts of Courage

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2004; Page WE47

IN "MOOLAADE," six African girls refuse to undergo ritual circumcision and unwittingly cause a revolution in their village. In Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene's hands, what could have been merely exotic spectacle becomes something astonishing, timely and deeply moving.

Like a set of talking drums, the film's polyrhythms capture an abundance of themes: the emancipation of women, the perennial divisions between generations, the tumult between the old, spiritual world and the new, secular one. "Moolaade," in short, is a movie to rock the soul.

Girls after their African village's "purification" ritual in "Moolaade." Ousmane Sembene's film centers on six girls whose refusal to take part in the circumcision affects the community. (New Yorker Films)

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Terrified at the prospect of genital mutilation, the preadolescent girls break into two groups. Two escape the unnamed West African village for destinations unknown. The remaining four take refuge in the house of Colle Gallo Ardo Sy (Fatoumata Coulibaly), an independent woman with mystical powers who has already stood up to the village imams. Seven years earlier, she refused to submit her daughter Amasatou (Salimata Traore) to what their tradition called "purification." Consequently, Amasatou has become declared bilakoro (unpurified), a state that prevents sexual or marital union with any man. Amasatou looks determined to continue her mother's individual path. She intends to marry a sophisticate known as Ibrahima (Moussa Theophile Sowie), who is due back from Paris. He also happens to be the chief's son.

These two women are the pariahs of the village, but Colle is a mystical woman who has the powers of moolaadé, the ancient spell of protection. She's a force, too.

Without hesitation, she invokes the spell for the four girls. Tying a tassel across the entrance of her home, she forbids them to cross it. No man or woman of any authority in the village dares to step over the rope either. The children's sanctuary will be undone only when Colle utters the correct words.

Colle's defiance provokes an impressive show of force, from the red-gowned women whose duty it is to perform the gruesome mutilation to the male elders. Colle must resist direct intimidation from the village leader, an adamant brother-in-law and her own husband, a decent man who is not bold enough to resist the patriarchal dictates of his world.

What starts out as a seemingly minor domestic affair becomes a turning point for the whole community. Will it retain the old ways and the medically dangerous practice (which often results in death)? Or will it embrace the outside world, whose existence is known through the radios the women own and the wares of a traveling peddler known as Mercenaire (Dominique Zeida)?

Colle is not alone; it's clear she has the tacit support of most of the women, especially when the men collect and destroy all those radios. "They want to lock up our minds," complains one woman.

"Moolaade" culminates in a scene of public whipping that is shocking and unforgettable. Even though the violence occurs out of the frame, we are nearly as shaken by it as if we were experiencing it ourselves. And the implications are immense, with one side encouraging this punishment and the other screaming for resistance and, ultimately, freedom.

A brilliant visualist, Sembene provides a telling metaphor as the smoke from a pyre of burning radios rises and engulfs the mosque tower of this village. "Moolaade" is also a riot of colors that almost rivals the vivid hues of Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou. The bold garments, the richness of the earth, the gorgeous greens and browns of this corner of the world, all attest to the beautiful world that can only be appreciated if one has the freedom to do so.

Despite the movie's unmistakable criticism of draconian tradition, however, Sembene never lets anyone lapse into easy categories. Mercenaire -- who represents the material, Western world -- is a wonderfully dual character. He's a womanizer and a scales-tipper, hardly a figure of morality. But he represents a freedom far more appealing than the present dystopia.

As for the men who are willing to risk killing for their traditionalist beliefs, they are more alarmed that Colle would undo their society than they are pantomimically evil. They are pawns in their own belief system, cocooned in a sort of earnest blindness. And anyone who doesn't see multiple levels of timeliness in all this probably isn't concentrating.

MOOLAADE (Unrated, 124 minutes) -- Contains sexual scenes, nudity, obscenity, violence and overall intensity. In Jula and some French with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company