The New York Film Festival used to be defined by its poster; this year, it’s the poster-rific films. The two punchiest movies in a generally strong lineup are both boldly diagrammatic placards in which rebellious middle-aged women stand up for their gender and consequently collide with the primal power of a punitive patriarchy. Each heroine is, in her way, a midwife to history. And each in its way, Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, set in post–World War II London, and Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé, which unfolds in rural West Africa, is a brilliantly effective reworking of old-school agitprop, complete with bravura group theatrics. The rise of religious fundamentalism has effectively repoliticized issues of female autonomy; Marxism lives, if only as opposition. For Leigh, the mumbo jumbo of the British legal system is even less rational than that of Sembene’s sandy village, in which a sacred ostrich egg sits atop the spiky termite hill of the central mosque.
Life is for the living in Vera Drake, which like a ’40s women’s film is named for its working-class heroine—a warmhearted busybody with black-currant eyes, played by diminutive Imelda Staunton as a doughty construction in pluck and bustle. A virtual perpetual-motion machine, Vera cleans houses, cooks for her family, nurses her miserable old mum, and when called upon, brings the same matter-of-fact cheer to the odd saline abortion, assisting a variety of mainly frightened, and not all young, women with their unwanted pregnancies—a mission for which she accepts no money.
It’s a period of shortages and black marketeering—as well as illegal abortion—but the Spider-like dreariness is illuminated by Vera’s goodness and her saintly aura of proletarian solidarity. Leigh constructs the movie as an accretion of briskly delineated scenes: Vera and husband attending a picture show, Vera helping her plain daughter find a mate. The vignettes cut across class lines—moving from cramped, dingy flats to the palatial homes that Vera cleans, and showing, among other things, the means by which a poor little rich girl (Sally Hawkins, the resourceful pop tart in All or Nothing) terminates the fruit of a casual date rape. “Oh Susan, you clot!” her worldly young aunt exclaims in exasperation before providing information on how to wrangle a psychiatrist and gain access to a private sanatorium.
Vera Drake divides neatly in two. As customary with Leigh, there’s a Manichaean streak—the selfish characters are truly odious. But what’s most provocative is the way that comfy social drama turns into unrelenting weepie. (This is a tea cozy that might have been designed by Sue Coe.) As the dramatic space constricts and celestial music builds, our Vera is turned, most horribly, to stone. Her anguished solitude as she is judged by a world of powerful men in uniforms and wigs cannot help but invoke the passion of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Joan. Indeed, Vera Drake puts the passion in compassion. Building up to a shattering conclusion, Leigh’s movie is both outrageously schematic and powerfully humanist.
Moolaadé (the Wolof word for “protection”) has another aesthetic strategy. This has to be the most richly entertaining movie anyone has ever made on the subject of female genital mutilation.
The founding figure and greatest exponent of the New African cinema, Sembene, now 81, began his film career with a stark and still-fresh essay on the psychology of colonization, known in English as Black Girl. Many of his movies have centered on female protagonists; none is more vivid than Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), who bears the scar of a cesarean section, and who—in seeking to prevent the girls in her village from being “cut”—will again suffer a painful motherhood.
Presented as a parable, Moolaadé is a work of unpretentious simplicity and formal eloquence. For Sembene, who considers it the most African of his films, Moolaadé follows Faat Kiné (2000) as the second movie in a trilogy on contemporary women, “Heroism of Daily Life.” More generous than her glamorous sister, the self-made entrepreneur Kiné, Collé is also more conflicted; whereas Kiné successfully reinvents herself in the context of post-colonial Africa, Collé is obliged to set the ancient tradition of sanctuary against the equally venerable value of ritual “purification.”
Moolaadé may be didactic, but it never sacrifices play on the altar of preachiness. Drawing on the village’s expressive gregariousness, Sembene makes his points through a “naturally” Brechtian combination of masks, musical numbers, and socially constructed characters. What could be more suggestive of Epic Theater than the means by which Collé transforms her courtyard into a sanctuary, draping a piece of colored rope across the threshold? Or that she can end the moolaadé by uttering a single word? Language has material power.
Sembene is more overtly anti-clerical than Leigh and, as contrived by an old-fashioned Marxist, his apparent folk cinema is scarcely naive. The flirtatious peddler, aptly named Mercenaire, is a crucial figure as an ambiguous force for modernization. (Among other things, he sells Protection-brand condoms.) And much of Collé’s power derives from her access to outside information. At one point, the village elders confiscate her radio—and all women’s—creating a pile of battered receivers that rivals the mosque.
Moolaadé isn’t just positive; it’s positively feel-good. Although the movie’s rousingly affirmative ending is reminiscent of a Chinese revolutionary opera’s, one could easily imagine Sembene’s scenario adapted as a Broadway musical directed by Julie Taymor, starring Queen Latifah as Collé, and maybe even suitable for Republicans.