The seminal will behind everything that matters about sub-Saharan African cinema, and at the same time the world’s most guileless filmmaker, Ousmane Sembene was virtually a one-man continental film culture for 40 years, establishing the cinematic syntax and priorities for an entire section of mankind, and its relationship with movies. From the first mini-feature, “Borom Sarret” (1964) to the last, vibrant, polemical film “MoolaadÃ©” (2004), Sembene’s work aches with sociopolitical austerity as an artist, he’s virtually style-free, almost unprofessional, but possessed of a voice as clear and uncomplicated as sunlight. Primal, unsophisticated experiences, the films are simple but never simplistic, lowbrow but unsensational, fastidiously realistic and yet unconcerned with sustaining illusion. His filmography is more or less divided between cool, undramatic autopsies on post-colonial norms and folly (1966’s “Black Girl,” 1968’s “Mandabi,” 1974’s “Xala”) and demi-epics of colonial horror (1971’s Emitai, 1977’s “Ceddo,” 1987’s “Camp de Thiaroye”). The slow burn, burial day battleground essay “Guelwaar” (1992) is a precariously balanced admixture of both, while “MoolaadÃ©” targets the most galling and controversial aspect of an African society straining under independence, Islam and reactionary tribalism: female genital mutilation.
I wouldn’t call “MoolaadÃ©” a comedy, but Sembene might’ve (he died last year), and there’s no denying its native exuberance and rebellious Ã©lan. Sembene’s agenda was didactic Africans were always his primary audience and “MoolaadÃ©” takes a satiric machete to traditional African machismo, marriage roles and society. We’re in a small, unindustrialized village where Islam is ubiquitous, but the tribal tribunal of elders still rules and ancient curses and superstitions are still respected. When a quartet of prepubescent girls come running for sanctuary from “purification” into the skirts of CollÃ© (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the headstrong second wife (of three) belonging to a milquetoasty village bigwig, she decides on the spot to summon the “moolaadÃ©” (a protection curse, represented by a silk rope tied across the home’s entrance) to protect them. Therein begins a titanic battle of wills between CollÃ© (who did manage to keep her own teenage daughter from being “cut,” thereby making her unmarriageable) and the village’s traditionalist elders, the Islamists, the priestesses whose sole mission is to remove clitori, her husband, and even her own daughter.
Sembene somehow manages to make “MoolaadÃ©” affirmative and universal, as if female genital mutilation could metaphorically stand in for every kind of systemic oppression of women in every culture. Maybe it can. The film certainly attains a kind of iconic joy, keeping matter-of-fact faith with animistic beliefs to an almost magical-realist degree, and reveling in Senegalese music, rites and Coulibaly, a non-professional performer (as always with Sembene), who nonetheless crafts a brave and exhilarating persona. It’s also Sembene’s most beautiful film; having avoided prettifying exotica during his whole career, the aging master was able to relax and enjoy the shade-dappled sunniness of his native land, making his most issue-oriented film also his most Renoirian.
Also proto-feminist in its own way, Otto Preminger’s “Daisy Kenyon” (1947) arrives amid yet another of Fox’s noir archive exhumations, but you’ve never seen anything quite like it. Wildly overlooked in its day and since then, Preminger’s movie isn’t noir at all, but a shadowy “woman’s film,” complete with career woman Joan Crawford stuck between men in a muddled and morally ambiguous postwar America. But that’s where its shared DNA with other movies ends and its flabbergasting originality begins. Adapted from a bestseller by Elizabeth Janeway, the film has twice the character dimension, poetic maturity of dialogue and performance richness than almost any film of its decade. Crawford’s designer girl Daisy carries on a relaxed and cynical affair with married man Dana Andrews, a big shot lawyer who knows Walter Winchell (walking through, playing himself), who irresistibly calls other men “honeybunch” and “dew drop,” who patronizes his brittle wife (“Citizen Kane”‘s Ruth Warrick), who spoils his daughters even though he’s always on his way to somewhere else, and who never in Preminger’s view remains either a selfish louse or a helpless alpha male trying to do the right thing. Fed up, Daisy defects and takes up with returning soldier Henry Fonda, a calm bundle of offhand, secretive, amused, suicidal contradictions himself.
The wonder of “Daisy Kenyon” is in its deep-dish management of character, credit for which should go to everyone concerned, but which is an earmark of Preminger in his most sublime moments. Every character harbors a private self, and Preminger never tips his hand to show them. Crawford has never been as complex and heartfelt, and has never had such strange and inspired dialogue (“Everyone’s dead but you,” Fonda’s misanthropic trauma-man spits; “But how did they come to die?” Crawford’s struggling single woman says, but says warmly, smiling, in sympathy for his despair). Fonda is so sheltered in his abrupt nihilism you couldn’t blame the other characters for thinking he was kidding and though Daisy sometimes seems to, we don’t ever. Andrews, one of the most resonant and subtext-packed leading men of the ’40s, lives out his ambiguous hot dog in four real dimensions, and you never know what he’ll do or say next. Even Warrick transfixes your eyeballs as a neglected wife given to battering her children who would’ve thought any role of hers would overshadow Emily Monroe Norton Kane?
Perhaps Preminger does deserve the final kudos, because his elaborate mise-en-scÃ¨ne, the unprecedented screenplay (adapted by David Hertz, with a grown-up relationship with the real postwar world), and a cast at the height of its powers is made to cohere into a distinct vision that talks and walks and feels utterly unique. It’s a revelation.
[Photos: Ousmane Sembene’s “MoolaadÃ©,” New Yorker Films, 2004; Joan Crawford in “Daisy Kenyon,” Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1947]
“MoolaadÃ©” (New Yorker Video) and “Daisy Kenyon” (Fox) are now available on DVD.