The biggest problem with recommending movies to other people - not as a critic, but as an ardent cinephile who loves to share the films I adore with friends and family and people I've just met at a bar - is that, after the title and maybe the director, the first thing anyone wants to know is, "What's it about?" Which is just fine sometimes, but in the case of Sembene Ousmane's gloriously humanist Moolaadé, it's a question I dread like Hell's gaping maw. Because if I answer, honestly-

It's about the practice of ritual female genital mutilation as performed in some Islamic African communities, and the writer-director made it as an expressly activist attack against what he rightfully considered a barbaric act of vicious patriarchalism.

-then right away, 95% of the people I will ever tell about this film have just decided to never, ever watch it, and the 5% that are still listening almost certainly have in mind a very different movie than Moolaadé turns out to be in practice. But that's the rub. If I answered that question the way I wanted to, saying, "It's about the interplay of color and space; it's about the way that an animist society is visually expressed by the animism of the nonliving elements of the mise en scène; it's about the use of sound to indicate social change and the thought patterns of groups"; if I said all that, then all100% of the people would stare at me like I'm a damned loony. Which maybe I would be, at that.

There is no better film than this to illustrate an idea that I first encountered in the writings of Roger Ebert (who wrote a wonderful review of Moolaadé in 2004 that wasn't useful to me, as I'd already seen it, but no matter), that I'm here paraphrasing from memory: movies aren't good because of what they're about, but because of how they're about it. The consensus is that Ebert has gotten a bit too easy to please lately, and it's not altogether popular to offer him unmixed praise, but I think it's only fair and accurate to say that this idea, which I believe that I encountered in 2002 or 2003, influenced my thinking about film (and art more generally) more than any other sentence I have ever read. This seemed like the right time to acknowledge that. Mr. Ebert, I know you're not reading this, but thank you.

Now, the beauty of Moolaadé is that we don't have to choose between "what it is about" and "how it is about it", because the "what" makes it important and impassioned (which are important things for a movie to be), while the "how" makes it thrilling and alive and far more entertaining and exciting and easy to watch than just about any message movie you have ever seen (which are all more important).

Taking place in a tiny, remote village in Burkina Faso, Moolaadé opens with four girls arriving at the home of Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), looking for protection. It was to have been the day of their excision (a euphemism somewhat less Orwellian than "female circumcision" for the dangerous surgery), but they were afraid, and ran off for shelter; knowing that Collé (whose ugly scars on her belly likely speak to a Caesarian section necessitated by her own youthful clitoridectomy) had a few years earlier refused to submit her own daughter Amasatou (Salimata Traoré) to the excision ceremony, the girls assume that she will protect them. And this she does, invoking a protective ritual: stringing a yellow, brown and orange cord about nine inches above the ground in the doorway of the courtyard she shares with her husband's two other wives, separating it from the rest of the village, she announces that the girls are under the care of the moolaadé (something that's not exactly a protective spirit, and certainly more than just a curse), and anyone who tries to remove them shall bring down the wrath of the magic on their head.

This triggers a massive storm of controversy within the village. The female officiant of the excision ritual (Mah Comporé) is of course furious at Collé; her husband's first wife, Hadjatou (Maimouna Hélène Diarra) at first seems quietly opposed to her subordinate's willfulness, although this hides a not-so-secret hope that Collé's act of defiance will win out; as for the husband, Ciré (Rasmane Ouedraogo), he clearly doesn't exert as much control over his wives as the other men in his village would prefer, and his brother Amath (Ousmane Konaté) is using all the power of masculine shame to force him to force Collé to call off the moolaadé - she being the only person who can do so without running afoul of the magic, and he being the only person with presumed authority over her.

On paper, the whole scenario looks rather more like a diatribe than a drama, with the women of the village joining Collé's side rather slowly at first, and then en masse when the male leadership decides to confiscate every radio in the community and set them on fire, reasoning that it was this source of modern contamination that gave Collé the idea to oppose excision in the first place; to the woman, it rather more looks like the men are panicked that their wives are going to suddenly develop personalities and self-will and become uncontrollable (which same impulse, the film never states but we are welcome to observe, lies behind excision in the first place: a painful procedure that dulls or outright eliminates a woman's physical ability to enjoy sex). This two-way conflict between the masculine/conservative and the feminine/progressive gains a third prong in the form of the movie's designated chorus: a traveling peddler called Mercenaire (Dominique Zeïda) who is the village's primary material connection to the modern world of mass manufactured technology, and who doesn't quite come down on one side or the other, except in that anti-modern sentiment is bad for business; he is at least partially matched with Ibrahima (Moussa Théophile Sowié), Amasatou's fiancé and the son of the village's leader, who returns just at the first flare-up of this controversy from his studies in Paris, and finds himself torn between his Western-bred belief in equality and self-determination, and his innate desire to obey his father and please the men of the community.

It's didactic, when you think about it; but you don't think about it while you're watching, at least not so baldly. Sembene, 81 years old when the film was completed, his ninth and final feature; though his career is not as heavy with titles as many, he was a truly gifted filmmaker with an all-powerful control over the fabric of cinema. In Moolaadé, his treatment of the village is not as the mere background for a political drama, nor are the villagers chess pieces and metaphors. This film is alive, as alive as any motion picture I can name: just the contrast between the blue sky, the green grass, the rusty termite mound in the village square, just that mixing of colors generates a kind of vibration, not a tension exactly (this isn't a thriller), but a sort of vital magnetism that makes you lean forward subconsciously, in some kind of undefined but very real sympathy with the movie.

Color is tremendously important throughout: the red dresses of the women responsible for the excision ritual, the rainbow of objects hanging from Mercenaire's cart, and the bright earth tones of the cord declaring the moolaadé: not as an abstract piece of visual beauty (though the film is certainly beautiful), but because all the colors hum with the energy of a living thing. Especially that cord: as the embodiment of an animist concept, it is only right that it should feel like a character itself, but I cannot explain how Sembene achieves the very weird and very real sense in completely still shots of the cord hanging from a clay wall, that the objects in the frame are all just as alive as any person in the movie, other than sigh, throw up my hands, and say, "that is why he was a genius).

Of course, this is not the story of objects, nor even of a village - though the village itself is a tremendously present being, and this is hardly a minor point in creating the movie's thrilling sense of vitality - but of human beings, and they are wonderfully evoked by a cast almost entirely made up of non-professional actors. The best of all is Coulibaly, who plays both a tremendously specific woman with a particular history, and an icon for a sort of defiant womanhood, standing in place and saying "No" to the continued violence of men. She gives an entirely unforced performance from which it is impossible to look away; Collés spirit dominates every beat of the story and the actress embodies that spirit with fullness and intense screen presence.

And this, this is why the film is so much more than a politically committed filmmaker and writer making a declaration against social injustice. It is a gasping work of humanity in its richest, most inviting state: for a tremendously serious film it is absolutely pleasurable to watch, because the people and their emotions are so wonderfully well-defined, and so instantly understandable; by the end we feel like we are watching on as people we've known forever as dear friends are going about their business, and not like movie characters are moving through a plot. Even when the film takes an abrupt and tonally shocking turn towards Brechtian statement of its themes near the end, with characters speaking the director's beliefs without a filter, there's no feeling that we're being given a lecture, because the moment doubles as a burst of pure enthusiasm and righteous joy for the assembly of women. It is in fact as exciting and emotional as any other moment in the film, despite how harangue-ey it must have looked on the page.

This is not a film to respect, nor a film to watch with stern intellectual blinders; it is a film to love completely, being absorbed into its lush visuals and glorious human existence. Its story is about such a singular issue, yet I cannot imagine anything more universal than the struggle between tradition and the desire for a better world; in the film's final shot, Sembene dramatises that conflict in a single potent image that is at the same time a haunting farewell to a community that we have lived in for two hours and come to understand like a family. It is both a message and a moment of pure, graceful artistry, and the passionate humanism underpinning that combination makes Moolaadé a cinematic triumph of the highest order.

(By the way, the Region 1 New Yorker DVD is an absolute disaster. So if you've decided upon reading this that you want to see it, tread very cautiously)