A late-career triumph for 81-year-old Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, “Protection” finds the provocative filmmaker-novelist-activist tackling one of his most controversial subjects: female genital mutilation (a.k.a. female circumcision) that is still practiced in 38 African countries. Rooted, like much of Sembene’s work, in classical dramatic and oral storytelling traditions, while expanding on the feminist themes that date back to his 1966 “Black Girl,” this richly textured parable feels every inch the work of a master — leading many to question why “Protection” wasn’t offered a Cannes competition slot. Pic’s topicality, coupled with enthusiastic public and critical response on the Croisette, portends a deservedly long life as a festival and arthouse staple.
As has been well reported in recent years, female genital mutilation is a longstanding tribal ritual whereby pre-teen African girls (sometimes as young as 4) undergo painful operations designed to excise part or all of the clitoris and labia, often culminating in the suturing of the vagina. Through these ceremonies — cited by some practitioners as a dictate of Muslim law — it is believed a cleansing can be achieved, keeping a girl pure for her future husband and diminishing the sexual drive that might lead her to be unfaithful. (No matter that men in many of these same cultures are permitted to take multiple wives.)
“Protection” begins with the escape of six girls from a “purification” ceremony. While two flee to the nearby city, the other four take shelter with Colle Ardo Gallo Sy (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the second of three wives belonging to a village tribesman (who happens to be out of town). A purification victim and the mother of a teenage daughter who has never been purified, Colle agrees to harbor the runaways.
In doing so, she invokes the Moolaade (or Protection), an ancient spell that promises harm to any who dare to violate the girls while they are under Colle’s care. A piece of colored yarn tied across the entrance to Colle’s house relays this message to others. Only Colle can end the Moolaade by uttering a special spell-breaking word.
While they acknowledge their obligation to follow the rules of the Moolaade, the male village elders are nonetheless infuriated by Colle’s actions. Equally unhappy is the council of women in charge of administering the actual purifications, which includes the mothers of the runaway girls.
Further complicating matters, Colle’s own daughter, Amsatou (Salimata Traore), is now of marrying age and is the desired bride of the heir to the tribal throne — a more liberal-minded businessman who divides his time between the village and Paris. Upon his imminent arrival, he will have to decide whether to side with Colle’s rebellion, or to join his father and the other elders in urging her to recant the Moolaade. To date, no man in this tribe has dared to marry an un-purified woman (or “bilakoro”).
Like the ancient ostrich egg situated atop its central mosque, the defining condition of Colle’s village is one of stagnation and ironclad resistance to change. Yet, like all the villages in Sembene’s films, it also bustles with flurries of background action and indelible incidental characters (like the aptly named huckster-merchant, Merceniare). It is a setting alive with people and with contradictions, and the perfect stage for a compelling confrontation between humanist values and blind obedience to tradition — a recurring Sembene theme.
In Sembene’s sublimely confident hands, that confrontation steadily accrues a near-mythic force until, in its moments of climactic confrontation, viewers feel that they are witnessing the birth of a great warrior legend.
For unlike the humiliated housemaid protagonist of “Black Girl” or the conditioned WWII POWs of “Camp Thiaroye,” Colle refuses to acquiesce to the way things always have been. And very much like the badly burned grandmother from Sembene’s recent “Faat Kine,” she will, by pic’s end, bear both the physical and emotional scars resulting from that decision. (There is a particularly harrowing flogging scene in which both male and female villagers shout “beat her” and “tame her” at Colle’s torturers.) Commandingly played by Coulibaly, who has sharp, unforgiving features and a powerfully physical presence, the character emerges as one of the most vivid in Sembene’s body of work.
Never one for didactic dramaturgy, Sembene unfurls “Protection” like an elaborate tapestry in which story, symbols and meanings are kept in perfect balance and not one thread appears inessential.
Preferring an openness of visual space that runs counter to the film’s psychological claustrophobia, Sembene and cinematographer Dominique Gentil achieve imagery suffused with air and color and light, and marked by precise visual metaphors (including an unforgettable final shot). The soaring, wailing music by Boncana Maiga suggests the voice of a vibrant spirit, long suppressed, at last set free.