Judge Joe Armenio's Wolof is a little rusty, but he can tell you that the title is pronounced "ha-la."
"You all think you're Europeans."
Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene (born 1923) received a lot of acclaim for 2004's Moolaade, a film about the practice of female circumcision. Reviews praised him as African film's reigning genius, but all of the attention obscured the fact that for most of his long career Sembene has been ignored in the United States. Mandabi (The Money Order, 1968) and Xala (The Curse, 1975), released recently by New Yorker Films, are the first of Sembene's works to become available on Region 1 DVD (Moolaade, despite its success, remains unreleased). Xala is a refined, politically astute, and angry satire on the corruption of postcolonial African governments.
Facts of the Case
Xala takes place as Senegal has achieved its independence from France; its main character is a prosperous and polygamous food merchant with government connections named El Hadji (Thierno Leye). Using illegally-gained money he arranges to marry a third wife, but is humiliated when he is unable to consummate the marriage. He goes to a traditional healer to remove the curse, or xala (pronounced "ha-la"), but his life begins to fall apart as his business fails and his corruption is exposed, leading to a climactic comeuppance at the hands of the poor people whom the new Senegalese government claims to represent.
The quotes from critics on the DVD box suggest that Xala is some sort of madcap farce, and indeed there are plenty of humorous elements to El Hadji's story, some of them rather broad, as when he crawls on his hands and knees in front of his bride, clutching a fetish in his teeth in an attempt to remove his curse. Overall, however, Sembene works in the European art-film tradition, lingering over details, allowing the plot to unfold at a languorous pace. The performances are understated and the themes emerge subtly and gradually.
The most prominent of those themes is the complicated and hypocritical relationship of the post-colonial Senegalese elite to the country's people, and to the idea of "Africanity." Sembene is at his sharpest when illustrating the ways in which members of the ruling class use a pride in and desire to preserve Africanness as a sort of rhetorical weapon, making lofty pronouncements about "African socialism" while in fact they embrace the racist and exploitative policies of the colonialists they overthrew. They are also elitists who carefully cultivate their cosmopolitan images, speaking French, washing their cars with Evian water. "I can't go to Spain anymore," says one partygoer, "everywhere you look there are Negroes." El Hadji himself embraces "tradition" and "Africanity" only when it's personally expedient for him to do so, as when he defends polygamy and patriarchy against the criticisms of his nationalist and feminist daughter. (Later in the film, with typically self-serving ideological incoherence, he chides her for speaking Wolof instead of French.) At the wedding ceremony he refuses to perform a traditional fertility ceremony on the grounds that it's barbaric, which, in his new mother-in-law's view, leads to his acquiring the curse of impotence.
The patient and long-suffering (and in the case of El Hadji's daughter, principled) female characters provide a sort of counterpoint to the bluster and hypocrisy of the male elites, suggesting an oppressed virtue at the heart of this corrupt society. Sembene also frequently shows us a group of crippled beggars, referred to as "human rubbish" by a government official; at first they seem to be only a sort of visual commentary on the sickness and lack of compassion in Senegalese society, but gradually they emerge as characters in their own right.
The second half of the film charts El Hadji's rather brutal downfall, and at this point the film remains a comedy only in the darkest and most ironic sense. His crimes are exposed and he loses the favor of the government; at this point he becomes something of a sympathetic character, a convenient scapegoat for officials even more corrupt than himself. El Hadji makes an impassioned speech in his own defense, saying to the gathered politicians that "each one of us is a dirty dog," and we know that he's both self-serving and correct. Things reach a sort of thematic climax when the assembled officials find a traditional fetish in El Hadji's possession and laugh at his lack of sophistication. "You only believe in technical fetishism," he responds, as an ejected French colonialist (retained as an advisor) looks on as a silent reminder of the ways in which independence has changed nothing.
The final sequence of the film, in which the beggars loot El Hadji's store and take their revenge, releases all of the subtly pent-up anger that has characterized the film to this point; it's a strange, uncompromising, harrowing ending, one which leaves us both deploring El Hadji as ruthless and thoughtless (and impotent in more ways than one) but sympathizing with him as just a cog in a desperately sick machine.
New Yorker's widescreen transfer is fine, but the white subtitles are occasionally unreadable against white backgrounds. Some of the dialogue also remains untranslated; I'm assuming that most of the untranslated lines are repetitions or pleasantries, but it seems to me that every line should be translated, especially in a film which uses the political implications of language as an important theme. New Yorker has also failed to give us any extras at all, which is a big disappointment. Sembene is a filmmaker whose work is deeply rooted in the social realities of a society about which most Americans, even cinematically adventurous ones, know very little; his movies need and deserve to be put in context.
Xala is bound to alienate some viewers because it's neither fish nor fowl. With its satire on the ruling class and its focus on impotence it seems like classic screwball material, but it moves with the slow, heavy rhythms of a certain kind of art film and has a persistent mood of angry despair. Viewed on its own terms it's a complex and compelling film; one hopes that the rest of Sembene's work will make it to DVD soon.
New Yorker is commended for finally making Xala available, but they're guilty of skimping on the supplementary material. And why hasn't Moolaade been released yet?
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