Though, like most critics, I prefer to maintain the illusion of having a vast and varied knowledge of my subject, I must confess that this is the first film I’ve seen by Ousmane Sembène, the celebrated 78-year-old Senegalese filmmaker. I make this confession without too many qualms because I feel that it isn’t my fault. The nine features that Sembène made between 1966 and 1992 are rarely shown in America and are unavailable on videotape or DVD. But those who have seen Sembène’s work are unequivocal in their praise, and so one approaches Faat-Kine with high expectations and the feeling that one is going to see the swan song of a career that remains largely invisible.

Faat-Kine (Venus Seye, in a wonderfully charismatic performance) is a fortysomething woman who manages a gas station in modern-day Dakar and who has two nearly grown children, two ex-husbands and a domineering mother who seems to have stepped from another age or world. But even before her story begins to unravel, one is confronted by the beguiling and sometimes confusing complexities of post-colonial Senegal, with its mix of the modern and the traditional which extends from matters of dress and language (French is the preferred tongue, though a native dialect is preserved for angry curses) to the bewildering marriage laws and the subtleties of sexual politics.

Then there are the varied tonalities of the film as it moves from light comedy to something much harsher and from family drama to more explicit social criticism. We learn during a flashback, for example, that Faat-Kine’s first child was born out of wedlock and that when her irate father tried to burn her (literally) her mother intervened and was burned instead (we’re shown her seared and bleeding back in horrendous close-up). Then it’s back to the present and the gas station, and her two children trying to hook her up with a third husband, played as a comedy of manners.

Faat-Kine lives in middle-class comfort and dignity, and the conflicts in the film are resolved through rational, if heated, discussion — but throughout there’s the intimation of some monstrous patriarchy that’s been only momentarily subdued. People regale each other with scathing Bergman-esque recriminations and then relax into their civilized French banter. Matters of identity are in flux but the bond between generations is only superficially damaged. There’s a tension here, keenly observed, and a humanity, generously celebrated. One waits now, with much anticipation, for a retrospective of Sembène’s canon to arrive.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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