The restoration of Xala is courtesy of Janus Films.
A pompous businessman finds himself struggling with impotence after taking a much younger third wife, in Ousmane Sembène’s landmark satire of patriarchy and class in post-independence Senegal.
A searing indictment of corruption in post-independence Senegalese governments, Ousmane Sembène’s satire Xala (1975) observes the lingering impact of colonialism on national psyches, politics, and traditions. Adapted from the director’s own novel, Xala follows pompous businessman El Hadji Abdoukader Beye, whose need to project an appearance of wealth and success leads him to taking a third wife younger than his daughter.
Instead of demonstrating the height of his virility and power, on his wedding night El Hadji is unable to perform sexually. He suspects his other two wives of possibly cursing him with impotence, but meanwhile it is the beggars in his community — repeatedly victimized by his greed — who have been plotting his comeuppance. Xala means temporary sexual impotence in Wolof, and El Hadji’s physical condition is a mere localized symptom of his and the other colonized elite’s endemic ineffectual leadership.
Sembène juxtaposes his skewering of this patriarchal ruling class with a more generous view of the women in El Hadji’s orbit. His fiery second wife Oumi continually asserts her independence and his sharp, radicalized daughter Rama — symbolically framed in front of a colourful map of unified Africa in one of the film’s most recognized shots — challenges El Hadji’s neo-colonialist conceits with Pan-Africanist ideals. As El Hadji begins to lose financially and personally, it appears that only a ritualistic public humiliation by those he has defrauded can cure his curse. A ferociously bitter yet funny satire, Sembène’s Xala is a must-see masterwork of African cinema.
Official Selection, 2023 Toronto International Film Festival
Content advisory: sexual innuendo