Throughout the four decades of his great career–which is the same thing as saying, throughout the history of filmmaking in sub-Saharan Africa–Ousmane Sembene has switched back and forth between urban and rural settings, historic and contemporary subjects, as if striving to encapsulate the whole of his continent’s experience. Most recently, in Faat Kiné, he dramatized the entrepreneurial and familial struggles of a Dakar woman, who had worked her way up into the middle class by running a gas station. His new film, Moolaadé, focuses instead on a village far from any paved roads, where women still draw water from a well and news travels by drum. From your first view of the dried-mud architecture–the round granaries set on foundations of round stones, the mosque with its stringy towers sticking up like an anthill’s peaks–you understand you’re in a place bound by tradition. Yet this place is also permeable to modernity, which enters the movie as soon as you do.

The first images in Moolaadé show the arrival of a peddler known as Mercenaire (Dominique T. Zeïda), who wheels into the village a bicycle cart laden with store-made clothes, bakery bread, bright-colored plastic housewares and the most prized item of all: alkaline batteries.

Another intrusion of modernity follows immediately, even as Mercenaire sets out his wares. Into one of the village’s compounds dash four skinny little girls dressed in nothing but blue shorts. Weeping and gasping, they beg for sanctuary from Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), who is the second of this household’s three wives. The children understand that she alone might take pity on them, now that they have run away from the rite their elders call “purification.” The girls have a more basic name for it: “getting cut.”

I see, though, that my summary has oversimplified the situation–an easy error to make, under the spell of Sembene’s effortless storytelling. Despite what I just said about modernity, these small girls do not yet think in terms of rejecting tradition. What they’re refusing is pain. As for the oval-faced, heavy-lidded Collé, whose forceful movements contrast strikingly with her bird-in-flight smile: Although she once set a bad example about genital cutting, years ago, she has never encouraged anyone to rebel. If she now provides the girls with ritual protection–moolaadé–it’s mostly because she can’t bear to turn away frightened children. She is acting for the moment on gut instinct. (I mean that literally; Sembene will show you the scars on her belly.) It takes the rest of the film–a two-hour stand-off between Collé and the girls on one side, the village elders and wise women on the other–to turn impromptu defiance into a conscious break with the past.

The siege at Collé’s compound is only the latest such confrontation that Sembene has imagined. In films as different as Black Girl, Ceddo, Guelwaar and The Camp at Thiaroyé, he has locked his conflicting characters into situations with no apparent exit. It’s his favorite plot device; and so one measure of his skill as a filmmaker is the fact that nobody walks out of his movies complaining of claustrophobia. His audiences speak instead of vivid performers, textured settings, cadenced actions, the pulse of daily life.

Moolaadé finds the octogenarian Sembene near the top of his form. The film plays like a musical composition, in relaxed tempo, made up in large part of ceremonious greetings, domestic chores, communal debates and marketplace transactions. Even while the villagers struggle in deadly earnest with their traditions, they keep on milling the grain, pumping the water, teaching an off-camera group of boys to chant the Koran. Interrupting this normal flow, though, are sudden narrative accents: an outburst of violence, or the comic spectacle of someone stepping awkwardly over the ritual barrier to Collé’s compound. Through his rhythms, Sembene makes these moments seem as natural, as open to the sky, as the village itself–although there’s finally not much that’s naturalistic about them. Charmer, pedagogue and symbol-maker, Sembene pays attention to such quotidian details not just for their own sake but to build up images, which can be as telling, and improbable, as the burning radios he heaps up in Moolaadé, leaving them squawking to different stations as they smolder next to the mosque.

Without such images, of course, the subject matter of Moolaadé would approach the unbearable. Only once in the film, and then only for a moment, does Sembene directly dramatize the terror of a little girl about to be cut. For a more extended dramatization, he translates this horror out of the realm of childhood mutilation and into a confrontation between adults–Collé and her husband–who face off before the entire village like two allegorical figures: moral force versus baffled, exasperated brutality.

Sembene knows the high cost of that contest, and he does not flinch from showing it; but he has paid a price of his own, on his way from fisherman’s son and dockworker to Father of African Cinema, and so he also knows which side must win, if the viewers of his story are to go forward with their own lives. The siege ends, the captives go free, lovers unite and a new generation steps forward, led by little children. It’s as profoundly mythic a liberation as you will find in the words of the prophet Isaiah.

It’s so modern that it ends with the raising of a TV antenna.

Mike Leigh’s new film, Vera Drake, bears a surface resemblance to Moolaadé in that both were shown in this year’s New York Film Festival and both are about a helpful married woman who defies the control that men exercise over women’s bodies. Set in London in 1950, Leigh’s film is the story of a wife, mother and cleaning woman (Imelda Staunton) who is always waddling cheerfully up the staircases of dingy brick apartment compounds, sometimes to serve tea to a handicapped neighbor and sometimes to perform an abortion. The word for her method, I believe, is “dodgy.” Vera forces soapy water up her patients’ bodies, explaining that in a day or so the bleeding will come. Then she leaves, providing nothing in the way of postoperative care beyond a sincere smile and a reassuring pat. Given the state of English law in 1950 and her patients’ resources, it’s as good as these women can get. If Vera could give more, we have no doubt she’d do it.

Always humming little tunes, always puffing busily and keeping her chin up, Vera initially seems, in Staunton’s performance, like some hard-working family’s beloved little dog, no longer young but still bright-eyed and eager to please. This raises a question: Does Leigh like Vera?

I’m sure he prefers her to the rich women she serves, who come off like unfunny stick figures, lacking the sensitive, lifelike modeling that a Ken Loach, say, might have given them. But to say that Leigh despises one class is not to say he admires another. Early in the film, he has Vera and her family engage in a long, detailed conversation about the recent war, one purpose of which is to establish a cozy sense of English solidarity. Generous, uncomplaining Vera is a ridiculously improbable character, unless you see her as exemplifying the belief that we’re all in this together, and we’ll pull each other through.

That, more than the harm done by anti-abortion laws, is the real subject of the movie: the chummy ethos that animates Vera. As far as Leigh is concerned, it’s a worldview fit for idiots.

Look at how dull a character Vera is, when she’s at liberty and helping others. Look at how she becomes more compelling, and the film much more interesting, as soon as she’s arrested and her suffering begins. (You know, of course, she’s going to be nabbed. You wait for it, and wait.) It’s not just that Staunton’s tears are varied, while her smiles are not. The difference is that consciousness begins to light up in dim Vera, the consciousness that her abundant kindness can be fatal.

I explain all this in order to put the best possible construction on Vera Drake. You can take the film as an act of termitelike subversion, in which Leigh gnaws away from the inside at a popular conception of English virtue; or else you can take the film at face value as an exposé of the bad old days, in which case it plays like a one-block-long trip down a one-way street.

In case the pro-choice film is the one you were hoping to see, allow me to recommend a visit to the video store, for Claude Chabrol’s Story of Women.

Short Takes: Self-congratulatory, show-biz-addled and not half as good as Finding Nemo, the new underwater animation Shark Tale will nevertheless delight small children, although it probably will amuse their parents more. If your small moviegoer can quote lines from Jerry Maguire, knows who MC Hammer used to be and cares that Martin Scorsese is now working as a voiceover actor opposite Robert De Niro, then the kid will savor the whole picture–and can probably get you in as a guest at the next Screen Actors Guild showing. Lacking the company of such a child, you might still go on your own. The animation is often delightful–as when, for example, the hustling little fish Oscar (voice of Will Smith) sits on the edge of the desk of Angie (voice of Renée Zellweger) and incidentally tips over her Rolodex, which takes the form of a seashell. I also like the film’s theme of tolerance. A tough shark family must learn to accept young Lenny (voice of Jack Black), even though he’s “different.” The problem, according to the script, is that he’s a vegetarian; but since he also speaks in a lilting voice, wears a scarf and changes his name to Sebastian, you can make up your own interpretation.

I cannot recommend the new documentary Arna’s Children for its filmmaking (which is adequate, though nothing more) or its political analysis (which is nil). But if you can find this THINKFilm release, which recently began a theatrical run at New York City’s Quad Cinema, you may find it important and unforgettable as raw information. Directed by Juliano Mer Khamis and Danniel Danniel, it is the story of a handful of young people in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. You see them when they are about 10 or 11 years old and participating in a theater workshop, established in Jenin by Juliano’s late mother, the Jewish activist Arna Mer Khamis; and you see them again at around age 20, by which time they are engaged in gun battles with Israeli troops or, in one case, preparing to carry out a suicide bombing. This harrowing material cries out for context, reflection, argument, judgment, which is not forthcoming from the filmmakers. Mer Khamis and Danniel would rather maintain the illusion that facts speak for themselves–as if Hamas and Likud couldn’t both make use of this footage. You, however, are a Nation reader. The filmmakers can trust you with this data.

Finally, on the subject of data: Antonio Muntadas and Marshall Reese have assembled the 2004 edition of their ongoing project, Political Advertisement, and will be showing it in various cities before the November election. In New York, the screening will take place at 6 pm on October 28 at the Donnell Media Center, introduced by the artists and Mark Crispin Miller. The one-hour video spans fifty years of TV ads for presidential candidates, from Ike to John Kerry, presented without commentary. Information: (212) 621-0609.