Im elated. Thats the only way I can quite describe the feeling I had finishing this film. Ousmane Sembene films are about as hard to come by as atomic weapons, maybe even harder, because at least the WMD were made at one point. The fact that Xala, along with Mandabi have both been released on DVD makes me jump up and down with sheer and utter joy, the grandfather of African Cinema can now, for the first time ever, be discovered on home video. With any director whose work is so well hidden, expectations can be impossibly high, which perhaps makes the triumph of Xala, even more exuberant.
The film is simple, but it takes awhile for us to find that out. Sembene sets the film up to be a satire on politics and politicians, as well as Africans selling out in an attempt to mimic their European conquerors, particularly the French. The film is in French, so even the dialogue helps support this. Although the story shifts from these natives pretending to be European to the story of one man, it still remains satirical. Sembene is saying that with a conversion to European customs you may lose what it means to be a man.
Gender issues are of the utmost in this film, and early on El Hadjis third wife is even being lectured on the differences between men and women. His earlier wives are instructing her on the lessons that men are superior, and it is her duty as a woman to be available whenever he sees fit to use her sexually. It is a backwards notion, but the ironic twist is that she wont be used sexually, because this superior man is in fact impotent. It may be just his age, but soon enough they become convinced that his impotence is not a matter of growing old or his wifes fault (She is described as being able to wake the dead). Like most men his sexual problem begins to be blamed on an outside source, a curse or Xala.
This leads him all over the country seeing specialists who are little more than witch doctors telling him some of the most ridiculous ways to get rid of his problem. Herein lies the comedy of the film, because this civilized African with the makings of a European gentleman is seen with a bone in his teeth crawling to his wife, and bathing in holy water to get an erection, not exactly the measure of the modern man. His political position becomes secondary, and he even recruits the help of the president to help solve his problem. In the meantime the women in his life, ridicule him behind his back for the most part. One of these inferior creatures eventually lays down some kind of law when his second wife comes to see him at work, asking for money, and saying that hes done with the child. She wants her turn, and she figures his Xala is nothing that a little loving cant fix.
A band of derelicts at one point seem to be just a subplot. They do originally connect, because it is El Hadji who asks the president if he can help get rid of the socially undesirables that surround his business. This band of people, some cripples, others just round up at the wrong time, spend the rest of the film wandering. They eventually wind up in the home of El Hadji, and lets say their revenge is at one point revolting and on the other hand it made me want to stand up and applaud, even though I was the only one in my room watching it. I can understand now why Moolaade, the only other Sembene film I have seen got a standing ovation in a movie theater (the first and only time Ive ever seen a film receive that reaction). Sembenes work empowers us in some way. He takes the womens side frequently, and this mans inadequacy may very well be a feminist move. I did chuckle that El Hadjis daughters room had a poster of Le Noire De (which was Sembenes first film). The grandfather of African cinema is a legend, and this film is one of the best reasons why.