“Xala” – A.J. Hakari

Foreign movies are often viewed as impenetrable fortresses of cinema. These serve as gateways to other cultures, yes, but those not accustomed to such environments are left feeling more than a little lost a lot of the time. Xala certainly seemed as if it would turn out this way, what with a story steeped in its native country’s own traditions, practices, and economic climate. But thankfully, its themes know no borders, and in the end, Xala emerges as a meaningful and relevant tale no matter where you call home.

Xala takes place right in the midst of African nation Senegal’s independence from France — or so the Senegalese think. As soon as the whites are ousted from one city’s chamber of commerce, they waltz right back in, carrying suitcases full of money for their native replacements. One of these men is El Hadji (Thierno Lye), a businessman so confident and successful, he’s about to enter his third marriage, much to the chagrin of his two other spouses and children. But trouble strikes on El Hadji’s own wedding night, as when the time comes for him to bed his new bride, he finds himself suddenly rendered impotent. At first, he chalks it up to stress and being overworked, but eventually, he comes to think that a “xala” (or curse) has been placed on him. A man who considers himself progressive and thinks of nothing but the future, El Hadji finds himself turning to the practices of his people that he had previously shirked as a means of helping him out of his predicament, a task that he comes to find out is easier said than done.

The happenings of a prominent Senegalese businessman are about as far removed from the life of some movie-loving schlub in Wisconsin as you can get. And yet Xala intrigued me and involved me nevertheless, thanks in part to a basic theme a lot of people can get behind: the rich can be real pricks sometimes. Xala is often advertised and touted as a comedy, though it’s not so much a madcap, side-splitting romp as it is an ironic slice of life. Think of this as being in the same vein as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, an acclaimed Romanian film that was sold as a comedy even though the main character is literally dying over the course of the story. Xala shows what happens when you take away all of the modern comforts, conveniences, and attitudes a man has grown accustomed to, highlighting how quickly he turns to the cultural beliefs he had abandoned in order to get him out of a jam. No knowledge of Senegalese politics or customs is needed here, simply the desire to see a jerk who’s made quite a cushy life for himself get a long-awaited comeuppance.

Writer/director Ousmane Sembene tips the scales even more against El Hadji by having his corrupt business practices unravel in front of his face, resulting in some compelling plot turns as our “hero” tries to scramble his way back to normalcy. Lye’s performance as El Hadji is simple but all the more involving for it; instead of a famous face distracting the viewer, they’re more immersed in the idea of this man being some guy who got lucky in business and is now learning the lesson of a lifetime. Lye does a swell job of bringing out the character’s more unlikable qualities while still generating just the right amount of sympathy for him (though as evidenced by the film’s very frank ending, Sembene isn’t about to nominate him for Man of the Year). However, Xala does suffer from a fairly serious case of a meandering plot. When he’s on track, Sembene is as wry and brutally honest as can be, but his good intentions of emphasizing the plight suffered by the poor and disabled at the hands of the rich result in too many random supporting characters popping up out of nowhere just to jump on the “El Hadji’s a jerk” bandwagon. The viewers get the idea fast, and although Sembene’s heart is in the right place, such instances grind the pacing to a near-halt and seriously bloat the running time.

Xala (pronounced “ha-la,” if you’ve been driving yourself crazy wanting to know) may seem like a daunting cinematic challenge on the surface, but what hurdles it does have are easily overcome. This is a film that’s for everyone who’s ever been screwed out of something that was rightfully theirs, anyone who’s sick of all the injustice in the world — or, a little more on the simple side, all who have ever wanted to see their boss get a karmic kick in the pants.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

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