Please pay close attention, irate-letter-writers-in-waiting: It is possible to be foursquare against the ongoing barbarism of ritual genital mutilation, and still not think Moolaadé is a great movie.
I’m sorry to speak to you in this manner, but I’m afraid it’s necessary. Maybe it’s part of this whole polarized American political climate, or maybe it’s something that’s always been out there in arts criticism. But for whatever reason, otherwise intelligent people find it impossible to discuss the merits of a film separate from its “message.” Seriously, folks, you can think The Passion of the Christ is overwrought, yet not be a Jesus-hating demon. You can think Fahrenheit 9/11 is fatuous and smug, yet not be Sean Hannity’s snugglebuddy. You can think The Pianist is perfunctory and passive, yet not be a Nazi sympathizer. Subject matter does not equal execution, and execution matters. No wait, it doesn’t just matter—it’s the only thing that should matter.
Veteran Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé is a serious, critical drama about a cruel practice that still takes place in many sub-Saharan African traditions, but agreeing with Sembene’s point of view does not require you to slather praise over his aesthetics. Set in the Burkina Faso village of Djerisso, the story follows a woman named Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly) as she challenges tradition. Several girls have fled the ceremony for their ritual “purification”—clitoral excision—and four of them have asked Collé for help. When Collé agrees and offers them sanctuary under a moolaadé, or protective spell, the elders are outraged—even more so when other women begin supporting Collé’s cause.
Collé has plenty of reason to fight the power. Having lost two babies at childbirth to the repercussions of her own “purification,” Collé refused to have the procedure performed on her own daughter Amsatou (Salimata Traoré). And the effects on Collé are ongoing—in one of the film’s most potent sequences, we see her suffering through excruciatingly painful intercourse, biting her own finger until it bleeds to keep from screaming.
These are the kind of moments that have an impact on viewers, understandably, and those who find themselves stirred to consciousness may consider Moolaadé a film as powerful in full as it is in individual moments like the one described. But Sembene’s message-mongering can rarely be accused of subtlety. The village elders, if they existed in a silent movie, would be twirling waxed moustaches to signify the callous villainy they defend by claiming the practice is required by Islamic law. One more enlightened male scolds his fellows with the admonition, “It takes more than a pair of balls to make a man.” Collé’s sister-wife Hadjatou (Maimouna Hélène Diarra) testifies, “Hope gives birth to courage—women’s hope!” Semebene makes no serious effort to explain or explore the cultural practice he’s attacking. It’s simply a capital-E Evil, presented to us through flatly-performed speeches.
The shame of it is that Sembene actually finds much more compelling subject matter around the periphery of his central critique as he examines the way creeping Western influence impacts the village. Elders, afraid that the women are gettin’ ideas in their heads, order the destruction of all their radios. The son of the village leader (Moussa Theophile Sowie), a businessman living in Paris, returns with his own ideas about whether he or his father should determine his marriage, while a traveling peddler becomes an easy scapegoat by virtue of being an outsider. As the women shift from their dependence on a mystical power to dependence on their own power to protect themselves, Sembene hits on notions that are frighteningly relevant to the culture war in our own country.
But didacticism, unfortunately, also proves to be a universal language. Moolaadé ultimately proves watchable largely from an anthropological standpoint, bringing an almost documentary sensibility to a subject that has already been given a documentary treatment in The Day I Will Never Forget. As drama, it’s basically a series of naturalistic tableaux interspersed with rallying cries. You can shudder in fury at what Sembene portrays; you can agree with everything he has to say about how much ritual mutilation harms women. And you can do all that while still believing that Moolaadé is just another film by a director who demonstrates more passion than artistry.
MOOLAADÉ **.5 Fatoumata Coulibaly, Maimouna Hélène Diarra, Dominique T. Zeida. Not Rated