October 13, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
We gave it an A

The subject is female genital mutilation in a contemporary African village. The storyteller is 81-year-old Ousmane Sembene, one of the reigning masters of world cinema. The story, Moolaadé, is the most powerful political film on the screen today. And its persuasiveness is rooted in the Senegalese filmmaker’s use of African folk-narrative traditions — conjuring up a great, rich hubbub as brilliant with color and characters as any drama on a less daunting subject.

The story rests on the courage of Collé (charismatic Fatoumata Coulibaly), a villager who has herself experienced the lifelong physical agony that results from ritual circumcision: Now she’s keeping her own daughter away from the cutting that cultural tradition in much of Africa demands. Other frightened girls turn to her too, and Collé fends off disapproving elders by invoking an ancient spell — moolaadé means protection. As the village is stirred by rebellion, Sembene allows each argument its dignity, presenting the challenge to change and adapt as an embrace rather than an admonition. The result: This great work of art has the potential to change the world.

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