NEW YORK — THE short but increasingly bright history of African cinema picked up still more momentum when the special jury prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival went to ``Tilai,'' a movie about love and honor from Burkina Faso, the African nation that used to be known as Upper Volta. ``Tilai'' is the work of Idrissa Ouedraogo, a major African filmmaker who once studied with Ouemane Sembene, the Senegalese director who remains Africa's most prominent cinematic ambassador. Mr. Ouedraogo's previous film, ``Yaaba,'' was well received in American art theaters last year, even though its story - about the friendship between two children and an old woman who's thought of as a witch - unfolds at a pace that's radically slow by Hollywood standards.
``Tilai'' is photographed and edited with greater intensity, and stands with the strongest films ever to arrive on the international circuit from the developing world.
``Tilai'' takes place in a small Burkina Faso village, where a young man named Saga rides into town on his donkey after an absence of two years. He's looking forward to marrying his fiance'e, Nogma, and is understandably shocked when he learns she hasn't been patiently waiting for him as he'd expected. She's married already, to his very own father - although it's not her fault, since she was coerced into the arrangement.
The town expects her and Saga to forget their love, now that she's officially his stepmother, but this is more than they can manage. They pick up their old relationship again, thereby violating ``tilai,'' the village's law of honor. When they're caught, Saga's brother is given the job of putting him to death. Things don't work out so simply, however, for the lovers or the community they've offended.
Ouedraogo has filmed ``Tilai'' with great beauty and simplicity. Yet it's a movie of surprising depth, with an unexpectedly strong emotional power running through its clear, uncluttered images. It also has superb performances, by Africans who obviously know as much about the subtleties of acting as most of their Hollywood counterparts; and it tackles a number of ambitious themes, including the complex relationship between responsibilities and priorities on the personal, family, and community levels.
Praise for the excellence of ``Tilai'' should go to all the people involved in making it, and a few cheers should also be reserved for New Yorker Films, the distribution company that's bringing it to American audiences.
Most moviegoers don't think about distribution companies very often, but they play a crucially important role in the cinematic power-chain since they're the risk-taking entrepreneurs that make films available to theaters. Not many are willing to stake their fortunes on movies from ``exotic'' places like Burkina Faso, but New Yorker does this sort of thing all the time.
Without such an enterprising company, adventurous moviegoers would be much the poorer - and films from Africa, and other parts of the developing world, would seem even more mysterious to Western moviegoers who can only benefit from broadening their cinematic horizons.