To get an idea of Ousmane Sembene's chops as a filmmaker, consider how the venerable Senegalese artist opens his latest work, Moolaadé. It's with the sight of an itinerant merchant's bicycle-drawn cart traversing a dirt road into the village where the film is set. The sequence doesn't seem to have much to do with the rest of the film -- until you realize that Sembene is simply but subtly reporting that this place is distant and isolated enough to require such a service, far from the modern cities we know Africa to have -- if only, in this still-pretty-big world, because of other Sembene films such as his sassy social comedy Faat Kiné.
But whether that village, a walled farming community of adobe huts, is also socially backward beyond redemption is the question Moolaadé poses. Most simply, it's a film about female circumcision: A group of four young girls about to undergo this ritual maiming dash across the village to seek protection, or moolaadé, from Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the second wife of this particular household. Custom permits her to offer it -- but her sheltering of the children launches in the village a nastily contested struggle between modernity and tradition. On one side, Collé and the girls; on the other, the village elders, arrayed in councils both male and female.
The 82-year-old Sembene's film career began more than four decades ago, with the sober, striking Black Girl, the first feature produced in sub-Saharan Africa, and his films always explicitly probe social custom. Here he gives female circumcision its due, such as it is: Elders believe it confers purity and protection, and say it follows Muslim doctrine.
Of course, none of that's true, as Sembene the teacher plainly shows. But while Moolaadé is more overtly didactic than some of his other work, there's much more to the film than such lessons. For one, it wrenchingly (but not graphically) depicts the physical and emotional toll of the circumcisions. For another, it beautifully and unpretentiously evokes a sense of place, and of the everyday world of the contemporary traditional village, from the drawing of well water to the milling of grain. And it skillfully uses commonplace objects to make sophisticated symbolic points, such as the way one male elder treats Collé much the same as he treats a radio whose messages he dislikes.
Finally, here's another reason Moolaadé opens with that peddler, who is named Mercenaire: Among his wares are alkaline batteries, the kind that make radios run, and thus let modernity creep bit by bit into the furthest-flung places. In Bambara and French, with subtitles.