- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

Like the French filmmaker Eric Rohmer, the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene remains active and idiosyncratic in his 80s. “Moolaade,” shot in Burkina Faso and booked exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, is the second installment of a projected trilogy on the estimable theme of “heroism in everyday life.”

Women have frequently been the protagonists in Mr. Sembene’s stories. A stubborn wife called Colle, portrayed by Fatoumata Coulibaly, is at the center of “Moolaade,” which alludes to a traditional form of sanctuary and celebrates her defiance of an ancient tribal practice: the would-be pious mutilation of young girls by excision of the clitoris.

Colle is the second of three wives who share the household of a sometimes fond and sometimes infuriated spouse called Cire, evidently a fairly prosperous farmer in a Muslim village, Djerisso. In time we learn that the ritual circumcision imposed on Colle in her youth probably hampered her childbearing. Only a daughter, Amasatou (Salimata Traore), delivered by cesarean section, has survived. The mother has refused to allow her to submit to the ceremonial knives of a maiming sisterhood called the Salindana. When Cire turns up and becomes the target of peer pressure from elders and traditionalists, he curses himself for being indulgent enough to tolerate Colle’s resistance in the past.

Evidently, it’s permissible to resist if a family doesn’t mind the social disadvantages attached to having a daughter who is “bilakoro,” or uncut. Although betrothed to a tribal prince called Ibrahima, who returns from a prolonged exile in France with considerable pomp but little discernible romantic ardor or courage, Amasatou is considered ineligible bridal material by numerous villagers, including her potential in-laws. Protecting the runaways puts Colle beyond the pale in the eyes of many equivocators, her husband included.

The setting contrasts contemporary and ancient outlooks while exploiting a controversial topic. Mr. Sembene declines to sort out the conflicts methodically, however, so information that would seem to belong to the exposition in a conventionally constructed scenario may not materialize until the closing stages of “Moolaade.”

You’re never quite sure which characters might be destined for pivotal roles. Some buildups don’t have decisive follow-throughs. Relative latecomers loom larger than you expect. Even Colle gets mislaid for substantial periods of time. An intriguing outsider called Mercenaire (Dominique T. Zeida), a merchant in the village market, seems to be a promising enigma: devious in some respects, fearless in others. Then he’s no longer on the scene, and the departure feels like a cavalier miscalculation.

The practice of excision isn’t the only source of conflict in the community. Many wives have grown attached to radios. The same die-hards who resent Colle when she shields four girls from the Salindana confiscate all the contraptions and turn them into a bonfire near the local mosque. But there’s something oddly goofy, as spectacle, about a radio auto-da-fe.

The title is never adequately clarified. It seems to describe a vow or a curse as much as a social custom. Colle invokes it by stretching a cord across a portal to her home. Evidently, the runaways can count on her protection as long as she isn’t overruled by spouse or peer pressure. Those prove big ifs. The mothers appear hostile to Colle at the outset, so you’re a little hazy on the sources of rebellion in these pre-pubescent girls.

Mr. Sembene tends to drift in and out of episodes rather than formulate them for optimum suspense and revelation. As a result, it’s easier to think of “Moolaade” as an exotic eye-opener than as a dramatic revelation.

**

TITLE: “Moolaade”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter and treatment, consistent with the R category; occasional profanity, violence and sexual candor; fleeting nudity and a brief scene of simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Ousmane Sembene. Cinematography by Dominique Gentil. Production design by Joseph Kpobly. Music by Boncana Maija. In Jula and French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes

WEB SITE: www.newyorkerfilms.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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