In Ousmane Sembčne's quietly majestic miniaturist epic, the scope is as ambitious as the storytelling is compact, the pageantry stark, the images direct. The format is declamatory griot theatre, thus the filmmaker's most African effort, multiple meanings imbued into actions (a jug smashed before a court meeting) and words ("If the lizard teases the turkey, it's because there's a tree nearby"). The timeframe is purposefully shaky, since, as Sembčne's pointed out, the title's rebels against Africa's Muslim indoctrination are less a specific tribe than a conscience, a state of revolt against spiritual colonization. The Princess (Tabata Ndiaye) has been kidnapped to protest the subjugation of the tribe, its individuality threatened by three magi ominously anticipating the exploitation of centuries to come -- a Catholic priest, a white trader, and, most notably, the Muslim Imam with eyes on the throne. (Makhouredia Gueye, the hapless mouse lost in the bureaucrat maze of Mandabi, is used here to evoke a similar feel of imploding patriarchy as the king.) "Is religion worth a man's life," bemoans an old messenger, although Sembčne understands the links bridging religious and political oppression, as well as their spanning ramifications -- the bearded priest conducts makeshift mass in his hut before a dissolve teleports in a Christian fresco-ceiling; elsewhere, "Freedom will be mine" is moaned over in American gospel tones during the slave-branding montage. The trajectory is mythical but spare, radiating sinister tranquility as cultural inner tensions are ruthlessly mined by colonizing forces; the climatic forced conversion is a literal depersonalization, the director himself among the herded masses, sheared of their hair, beliefs, identity. The Ceddo rebels talk of insurrection versus integration, yet they all sidestep the possibility of revolution in the medium-shot historical perspective. In the end, it fittingly falls to the Princess to take action, her sudden militantism plunking Sembčne's feminist ethics out of Xala household and into political battlefield. With Moustapha Yade, Ismaila Diagne, Mamadou Dioumé, and Omar Gueye.
--- Fernando F. Croce