Criterion Prediction #129: Xala, by Alexander Miller
Title: Xala (aka The Curse)
Director: Ousmane Sembene
Cast: Thierno Leye, Myriam Niang, Fatim Diagne, Seune Samb,
Synopsis: At the dawn of Senegal’s independence from France, a bureaucrat named El Hadji uses his money and position to marry a third wife despite upsetting his progressive daughter as well as his two older wives. The perverse irony of El Hadji’s indulgent lifestyle comes to light when, on his honeymoon, he cannot consummate with his recent bride because he is suddenly impotent, believing that he is under the spell of a xala (or curse).
Critique: Xala is a strange case of satire with a story that sounds like the stuff of a basic sex comedy but with a sometimes advantageous, loose-fitting style that drapes over an immaculately told colonialist allegory that has time to take some jabs at male chauvinism along the way. There’s an immediate sense of irony at the start of the film. While Senegal is recently independent of France, the air of bourgeois amenities and colonial attitudes are ever present. The first scene shows the natives dispatching the foreign interlopers they inaugurate their new era of independence with briefcases of money, donning tuxedos, with haughty self-importance. Of course, Sembene is no stranger to this territory and is one of the most politically active filmmakers from Africa.
Sembene is a compelling figure in the conversation of world cinema; he’s politically motivated and his cultural identity is at the forefront of his cinema, yet there’s a diversity in his aesthetic handling. While Black Girl is a succinct and blunt rebel yell, Sembene’s Xala finds a lightly scratching sense of humor in its subject. There’s a broader focus with emphasis on characters; the thinnest portrayal is that of the male El Hadji, given the film’s stance on colonialism and the notion of male chauvinism it makes sense its pseudo “protagonist” is transparent. However, Hadji’s sister wives weigh in as consequential personalities. His first wife, donned in Senegalese garb, is wise and blunt while, in contrast, his younger second wife is furnished with bourgeois amenities like wigs, dresses, and makeup. Her vanity is indicative of the cultural divide. The most active female persona is his outspoken daughter who’s openly critical of her father’s dated mores and hypocritical tendencies, she also has Charlie Chaplin oysters in her room, and we can see the cathartic reflection of the director through this avenue of his creation.
But Sembene doesn’t play his hand in too obvious a manner and his neorealist tendencies don’t contain him to lavish in landscapes or jungles. Neither does he overemphasize the gravity of urbanization. He doesn’t shy from the disabled amputees and vagrants that populate the streets, nor is he compelled to languish in long, laborious landscapes and panoramas of nature. The constant threat in Sembene’s cinema (based on Black Girl, Xala, and Moolaade) is an unembellished eye for realism without laying anything on too thick. Thematically there’s no subtlety but aesthetically he exercises some dynamic prudence. While there are some jagged edges throughout Xala, some scenes drag with incongruities it shapes a folksy metaphor into an intelligent narrative with a potent finale while juxtaposing the stain left by the French occupation
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Once news of a restored version of Black Girl was touring, it sent out signals that it might be a part of The Criterion Collection. While I can’t say the same for Sembene’s Xala, there are some restored versions of the film as well as the director’s Emitaï hovering around. Xala might not be the type of film to get a standalone release. The movie could be featured on a future volume of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project sets. Given the gravity and style of Black Girl Xala would be a complimentary rounding out of Sembene’s directorial range. As it stands, there’s a rough release of Xala via New Yorker video, who has a given a modicum of international films over the years the quality and subtitles are problematic and spotty. Hopefully Xala is a candidate for an upgrade. I might as well take this opportunity to share that the director’s Camp de Thiaroye (the narrative of which follows the Thiaroye transit camp massacre) is streaming on YouTube. English subtitles can be acquired via third party website.