(NR) 4 starsEd Johnson-Ott

Moolaade is an arresting and richly entertaining film that deals with a very serious subject by placing it in a bright, colorful setting filled with bright, colorful people. The story of an African woman's battle against female genital mutilation is presented simply, allowing us to gradually - easily - get to know the social order, important customs and key players for the drama which is set in a small village far, far away.

The village, in the Sub-Saharan region of Africa, has a fairy tale quality to it. The architecture is unique: efficient and lovely. Of particular note is a striking mosque that looks like an abstract tribute to the hedgehog. Everywhere you glance, vibrantly colored clothing and near-psychedelic painted household utensils enliven the earth tones - American designers would be thrilled with this place.

One day, four young girls appear at the doorstep of Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), seeking her protection. It is time for their "purification" ceremony and they do not want to subject themselves to the genital cutting involved in the rituals. They turn to Collé, the second wife of one of the village elders, because she refused to allow her daughter, Amasatou (Salimata Traoré), to undergo the procedure.

Collé lost her first two children thanks to the "excision," she firmly believes, and she has a scar on her belly from the procedure necessary to complete Amasatou's delivery. So Collé takes in the girls, draping a colorful rope over the entrance to the family courtyard to signify the invocation of moolaade: sanctuary.

The village is scandalized - from her neighbors to the red-robed knife-wielding priestesses who perform the circumcisions to the men loitering in the shade - but what to do? The moolaade can only be undone by Collé (she would only need utter one special word) and her husband is not due back in town for another two days.

So everyone chatters about it, to each other and to her. Collé has no grand philosophical argument against the practice - she just recounts, again and again, that she lost two children to the cutting and nearly lost the third.

Eighty-one-year-old Ousmane Sembene, known as the father of post-colonial African cinema, displays magnificent control here. First he introduces the village, giving us time to take in its beauty, savor its ingenious designs and get a sense of the rhythm of daily life within its boundaries. Then he introduces his characters and story, careful to keep each person and each action in its proper context of village life. Ever so gently, we learn the politics of it all.

The village, incidentally, is not cut off from the rest of the world. Despite their remote location, the people cherish the radios and television sets that keep them up to date on life elsewhere. So strong are those conduits of new ideas that when the problems with Collé are not corrected by the other women, the men address the disturbance by confiscating the TVs and radios.

Sensitive viewers should know that, while brutal things happen in the film, explicit images are kept to a minimum. Ousmane Sembene is out to teach and to effect change and he understands that the best way to do so is not through shocking graphics and speechifying, but by immersion in a relatable storyline. Let's hope that Moolaade, one of the best films of 2004, is as successful in the human rights arena as it is in the cinema.

Opening Friday at Key Cinemas.


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