‘Xalé’ Review: Senegal’s Oscar Submission Blends Universal Melodrama With Enticing Traditional Storytelling

Raw, raging realism clashes with melodramatic contrivance in Moussa Sène Absa’s “Xalé,” and that’s before a theatrical chorus of women seizes the screen to comment on the unfolding tragedy. The latest film from the veteran Senegalese director blends narrative styles and traditions with abandon, running the gamut from local folklore to Western-style soap opera, in an effort to make its tale of female subjugation and self-liberation as stretchily universal as possible. If that makes “Xalé” uneven practically by design, it’s consistently, colorfully diverting and honestly felt — it’s not hard to see why Senegalese selectors tapped it as the country’s international Oscar submission this year, though it lacks the finesse and political complexity of their recent, shortlisted entries “Atlantics” and “Félicité.”

In a market still largely unaccommodating of sub-Saharan African cinema, those films benefited from competition berths at Cannes and Berlin respectively. Having quietly premiered at this month’s London Film Festival, Absa’s film hasn’t quite the same head start: It is likeliest to reach international audiences via region-specific festival programming and, further down the line, specialist streaming platforms. Still, “Xalé’s” right-on messaging and vibrant delivery — with a color palette led by the saturated textiles of traditional boubou dress — is likely to enchant many a curious arthouse patron who stumbles upon it.

The chronologically slip-sliding story begins in medias res, and joltingly so, as an attractive middle-aged woman seduces an older man in a heaving Dakar bar. After plying him with cognac, she returns to his place, before vigorously stabbing him to death, declaring him a “worthless coward.” “Death awaits us all around the corner,” the film’s rather joyful Afro-Greek chorus informs us minutes later; unsentimental and fast-moving, “Xalé” certainly takes an easy-come-easy-go approach to matters of life-altering consequence throughout.

The timeline immediately rewinds from this startling opening gambit, only to find death hovering in the air once more. With their parents out of the picture, teenage twins Awa (Nguissaly Barry) and Adama (Mabeye Diol) are raised by their ailing grandmother: Bright and obedient, Awa excels at school while her more rebellious brother dreams of making a new life for himself in Europe. When the old woman passes away, surly uncle Atoumane (Ibrahima M’Baye) takes over their care; fulfilling her dying request, he marries his unwilling cousin Fatou (Rokhaya Niang), thwarting her chance at happiness with lover Nandite.

Co-written with Pierre Magny and Ben Diogaye Bene, Absa’s script unloads this information bluntly and briskly: The film’s more expository patches, in conjunction with DP Amath Niane’s bright lighting and head-on compositions, can tend toward the televisual. Any viewers struggling to keep pace with this ugly family affairs may indeed be grateful for the interventions on the chorus, who don’t explain proceedings so much as underline their emotional tenor, albeit in matter-of-fact fashion. “Woman, soothe your pain,” they croon, surrounding the wailing, reluctantly betrothed Fatou. “What has to happen must happen.” 

The film retains this fatalistic outlook as passing years bring about the dissolution of the arranged marriage; when Atoumane violently takes out his frustration on his young niece, Awa (played by Barry with increasingly steely, purposeful poise) takes the reins of the story. If there’s more than a hint of rape-revenge genre convention to what follows, “Xalé” tempers the exploitative pull of such stories with a stark, level-headed sense of community justice, one that feels both entrenched in tradition and attuned to the global reversals of post-MeToo gender politics. 

That this is still a story written and directed by men is, at points, a little too palpable: The film’s female characters are drawn in broadly sympathetic strokes, speaking with expressive emotional force but little interior nuance. The sense of masculine shame that eventually swarms proceedings is unusual and compelling, however: “Xalé’s” rough edges and loose threads point to a gender war still in progress, gradually turning towards righteousness, though not without casualties on either side.  

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