Senegal has just received its independence from France, and the new government is happy to get rid of the symbols of the old order and put them on the steps of the Chamber of Commerce as they now have no place inside. One thing that still does have a place, however, is the foreign money, and the outgoing white politicians hand over suitcases full of notes to the incoming African politicians, who are perfectly willing to accept such bribes. To celebrate this new power, which is not as new as the citizens would like, one of the ministers, El Hadlji (Thierno Leye) invites the cabinet over to his place - he's getting married!
Again! This means he will be on to his third wife, although whereas elsewhere in other parts of the world most men would have divorced their previous wives first, here he can marry as many as he wants and the women have to put up with being second best, or third best. Something that will be universal is that there may be four in that marriage, but the ladies still henpeck the husband, and although they tell anyone who will listen that in no way are they jealous of the younger models, you can tell they're far from delighted.
So begins possibly the most famous film from one of Africa's most celebrated directors, Ousmane Sembene. He was the first black African ever to make a film in his home continent (with Black Girl in 1966) and for the rest of his life he embraced his chosen profession with enthusiasm; Xala is one of his comedies. Not that it will have you rolling about the floor, to call it a satire would be more appropriate, and a particularly savage one at that, all at the expense of Senegal's ruling elite. Sembene was influenced to some extent by the French New Wave so just as members of that movement were glad to take on the bourgeoisie, the same approach is developed here.
At first, the tone is light, albeit still clear-headed, as El Hadji's wedding celebrations go ahead to a woman far his junior; we're in doubt he's simply a dirty old man abusing his position of power to hold sway over an attractive girl, but abuses of power are what this is all about. Sembene is not going to allow him to have it all his own way, however, as when it gets to the crucial moment later that evening he finds he is impotent, and the curse of the title is the reason. You may be surprised that the film takes superstitions such as that all too seriously, but it does propel the plot forward to its unforgettable denouement.
Before we get to that, there are a lot of withering attacks on the Senegalese authorities, ranging from their treatment of women - El Hadji's grown daughter from his first wife sticks up for her gender as well as her people and gets a slap for her trouble - to their corruption when they get the chance to exploit their influence. Time and again the action returns to a group of beggars, some of whom are outcasts thanks to disabilities, representing those on this society who have suffered most, and the tension builds as you wonder where all this is heading. Actually, for a comedy this has fewer laughs the longer it goes on as if Sembene lost his sense of humour about his targets halfway through filming and decided he wanted cold-hearted revenge. This is not a slick film technically, yet the methods it uses to leave us in no doubt about the evils in post-colonial Africa could not be more deftly employed. Music by Samba Diabara Samb.