Between 115 and 130 million girls and women around the world have undergone the ritual of purification, also known as female circumcision, but more accurately described as genital mutilation. Still routinely practiced in Africa, the reasoning behind excising all or part of a woman's clitoris is to lessen a woman's enjoyment of sex, thereby deterring her from premarital or extramarital relations. It's said to aid in hygiene and make a woman's face more beautiful. Many also believe that a baby will die if it comes into contact with the mother's clitoris during birth, and if the clitoris touches a man's penis, it will make him impotent or end his life.
The only proven facts, however, are that genital mutilation is a barbaric and wildly unsafe practice that is incorrectly labeled a Muslim tradition and leads to a number of complications, including death, in its victims. Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene tackles this issue in the moving Moolaadé, and though the topic of genital mutilation fuels the film's plot, around it Sembene has crafted a lovely look at life in an African village as well as a tribute to the ability of one person to make a difference.
Set in Burkina Faso, Moolaadé shows what occurs after four young girls, ranging in age from around 5 to 9 years old, flee from their mothers and appeal to a woman named Collé (the fiery and funny Fatoumata Coulibaly) for protection from the purification process. Collé is known to have refused to let her own daughter be subjected to the horrific custom (after having lost two children during birth due to her own cutting), so she shelters the girls and invokes a "moolaadé," which could best be described as a spiritual safeguard.
The moolaadé is taken very seriously by the superstitious villagers and is embodied by a colorful rope that stretches across the threshold leading to the little asylum seekers. The Salindana (crimson-clad women who wield the instruments of mutilation) do not dare step over the rope as they wind their way through the village like a serpent and routinely petition the elders, who are absolutely apoplectic over Collé's rebellion.
Collé does enjoy staunch support, however, from her husband's other wives, especially the alternately stern and warm Hadjatou, who at first seems wary about getting involved but soon understands the import of the situation and grows to respect the courage of Collé's convictions.
The men of the village are irritated by Collé's rabble-rousing and demand that her recently returned husband force her to utter the word that will end the moolaadé and allow the purification ceremony to take place. And the final confrontation between those for and those against is a devastating yet exhilarating scene that should leave anyone with a heart choked up and cheering.
Ousmane Sembene is considered the father of African film, specializing in movies that address taboo subjects and giving voice to those who can't always be heard in such a hierarchal society. He's not as famous as fellow octogenarian Ingmar Bergman or 90-somethings like Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira and Italy's Michelangelo Antonioni, but he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those masters. All continue to do vital work well into what should be their twilight years, giving hope to those of us who won't have to worry about those pesky Social Security checks.
Until 1999, British filmmaker Mike Leigh was best known for his intimate portraits of dysfunctional family life in the UK. But acclaimed films like Life Is Sweet and the Oscar-winning Secrets & Lies didn't prepare anyone for Topsy-Turvy, a full-blown frock flick and Leigh's love letter to the artistic process.
Topsy-Turvy takes place in late 19th century England as writer William Gilbert (the awesome Jim Broadbent) and composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) have reached an impasse. Princess Ida, their latest operetta, is a flop. Sullivan retreats to Paris, unwilling to pander to the public in hopes of staging another hit. Gilbert is rather uninspired himself until his wife drags him to an exhibition on Japanese culture that plants the seeds for The Mikado. The remainder of the film is a meticulous re-creation of the behind-the-scenes intrigue that goes into the conception of a piece of theater.
Yeah, you could go rent Topsy-Turvy, or maybe catch it on Bravo sometime. Only the big screen, however, can present this gorgeous, inspiring masterpiece in the way it deserves to be appreciated. Like you, I've seen a lot of films, but Topsy-Turvy is one of my all-time favorites.
Moolaadé (NR) screens Saturday, June 25, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 26, at 5 p.m. in the Dryden Theatre. | Topsy-Turvy (R) screens Tuesday, June 28, at 8 p.m. in the Dryden Theatre.