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Issue Date:  November 12, 2004

Facing change with grace

African villagers confront 'Moolaadé' ritual; Californians examine life in 'Sideways'


Moolaadé, the title of the new film by the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene, is the Wolof word for protection. Amazingly, though its subject is female genital mutilation, the movie manages to be upbeat, entertaining and dramatic. Mr. Sembene has always shown deep understanding of the plight of African women; his breakthrough film, “Black Girl” (1966), dealt with the trials of a young African woman working for a French couple. “Moolaadé” won’t make it to your multiplex, but it’s worth searching for at your nearest art-film house or looking for at your video store six months hence.

The story develops with the directness of ritual; its courageous female protagonist Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly) offers sanctuary to four young girls who have run away from the “purification” ceremony. What will be most fascinating to U.S. viewers will be to see a mosque and a spirit-possessed anthill stand side by side in the village. Djerisso is an Islamic world where the people believe the Quran enjoins mutilation and where tradition can only be resisted by invoking a contrary tradition. Collé accepts the authority of her husband, who reluctantly beats her because his older brother commands it, but she is finally able to rally enough of the village women to overturn the old order.

Mr. Sembene is respectful of village traditionalism even while showing how radios, as sources of news and alternative opinions, have become agents of change. The womanizing village peddler, Mercenaire (Dominique Zeïda), is an amusingly ambiguous force for modernization; he dispenses condoms as well as traditional household products. The return of the chieftain’s son from France is warmly welcomed in Djerisso; he hands out crisp new banknotes to the villagers, but at first rejects his arranged marriage to Collé’s daughter, Amasatou (Salimata Traoré), because the latter has not undergone ritual “purification.”

“Moolaadé” conveys a strong sense of the gregariousness of village life: Everyone is involved in everyone else’s business. Although Mr. Sembene is offering a political statement, he is never heavy-handed; his film makes wonderful use of masks, musical numbers and the natural beauty of the surroundings. The apparently total control of the village elders makes one fear that everything will end in catastrophe, but the courage of Collé becomes contagious after the women see her endure her beating. And radios, which the elders have collected, hoping to end their influence, become the source of new information that challenges the old ways. At 81, Mr. Sembene remains at the peak of his powers: He makes us feel we have lived in his village for a little while, and we are both charmed and humanized by the experience.

Sideways is a road movie with a few new twists. Though director Alexander Payne (“Citizen Ruth”), working again with screenwriter Jim Taylor, makes considerable use of farce, the deeply moving performance of Paul Giamatti gets us deeply involved with the quirky hero, Miles. With his old college buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), an over-the-hill TV actor about to get married at the end of the week, Miles has proposed a trip from San Diego up into central California for a week of wine, golf and memories.

The problem is that Miles’ memories are downbeat: He hasn’t gotten over his two-year-old divorce, and he’s deeply worried that his 750-page novel is about to be rejected by a New York publisher. A middle-school teacher in his 40s, he’s a knowledgeable nut about wine and his constant attempts to explain its mysteries to Jack at every stop on the road become a running joke. Jack, on the other hand, despite (because of?) his impending marriage, thinks of the week primarily as an opportunity to bed a few women. A muscular type whom many women have found attractive, he couldn’t care less that his friend prefers Pinot to Merlot. Jack has to be reminded to call his fiancée.

You may ask yourself why these two men are together, but you’re too busy enjoying the way Miles is working on the Times crossword puzzle while driving his Saab along the freeway. There’s a jazz score in the background, the scenery keeps changing, the quick visits to different wineries give Miles further opportunities for hilarious explanations of the subtleties of wine and you look forward to Jack’s finding some good-looking women at the next stop.

Jack is worried that his downbeat partner will put a damper on his sexual hopes and tries to lecture him about how to proceed on a double date that develops after they meet Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works in one of the vineyards, and Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress studying for a master’s degree. Jack is soon doing fine with Stephanie. Miles and Maya seek out a quiet place to talk; somehow the subject of wine seems to suggest the possibility of becoming more intimate. Mr. Giamatti conveys the sense that the only thing Miles believes in is his misery, but despite his conviction of failure, he manages to ask Maya to read his novel. When he pulls the two boxes that contain his huge manuscript out of the back of his car, it’s a richly humorous moment, yet somehow moving.

“Sideways” tests the friendship of the two men and is perceptive about the rootlessness of much American life. Without making things too neat, the movie manages to end with cautious affirmation; Jack gets married in a beautiful Armenian church, and Miles, after exploding at the news that his novel has been rejected, makes a first move away from his destructive self-pity.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer. His e-mail address is:

Quick Takes
Team America: World Police
, a puppet action-musical from the “South Park” team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, represents top-level animation in the service of utter tastelessness. A heavy-handed satire of both jingoist patriotism and Hollywood “leftists,” its chief villain is Kim Jong Il, an angry puppet who provides Arabs with weapons of mass destruction. Its idea of humor is to heap contempt on homosexuals and show Team America causing the collateral destruction of the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre. The only laughter I heard was when the puppets were shown having sex in a surprising variety of positions. Ugh!

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 2004

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