Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Stars: Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki
4 (out of 5) Globes
“Timbuktu” is a serious (which is to say reasonably comedic) examination of life under Islamic extremist rule that arrives in a climate thick with fear. As such, it’s perhaps not the ideal time for release. It’s not the kind of film a zealot holds up to beat any side of the debate; it offers no easy answers, and could even be susceptible to misinterpretation, particularly by those who haven’t seen it. It’s a patient art film that humanizes its extremists, but in a way that only makes them scarier because you get a better understanding of how they’ve been mislead. That doesn’t make it particularly useful to those who want good-vs.-evil “moral clarity,” but it’s useful to everyone else.
“Timbuktu” is the latest from Mauritanian master Abderrahmane Sissako, who makes gentle, observational and political films, like “Life on Earth” and the world debt picture “Bamako,” that are as gentle as they are passionate, and often playful. (“Bamako”’s footage of an open-air court battle is briefly broken by music and a fake movie trailer starring Danny Glover.) “Timbuktu” was inspired by the under-reported 2012 stoning of a couple in Mali, but their onscreen equivalents are only part of a vast ensemble, and the film presents its outrage with pointed detachment. Never once letting his film get worked up, Sissako jumps around a cosmopolitan city as its taken over by a gang of extremists, who seem more bullies than professionals. They’re in Timbuktu to impose Sharia Law, which means no sports, no music, no cigarettes and no adultery. It shouldn’t be a surprise when the soldiers talk soccer or when one of the leaders nips off for a smoke.
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Such are times are when “Timbuktu” recalls “Four Lions,” the English satire that follows five (and eventually four, and eventually less still) bumbling, would-be terrorists as they become actual, deadly terrorists. There’s even a similar scene of a bungled video recording, this one with a “reformed” rapper working too many “yo, man”s into his call to arms. Both films are widely different, but they both arrive at the same observation: That terrorists aren’t always, or even mostly, good at what they do — that they reign more by might, which comes from misdirected anger. They’re the people swayed by videos to join the ranks of ISIS, not in possession of some mystical evil gene. Though they’ve found tortured rationalizations for their actions, they’re not in control of all their faculties, and that makes them all more deadly.
All this said, this only gets at a pittance of what “Timbuktu” is about. It doesn’t dilute its topical import to say that Sissako’s latest functions equally as a proof of real, messy life amidst sloppily enforced horror. Its resistance lies in how it holds back, how it doesn’t overstate the issue, how it shows life moving on, struggling to defy the extremists, who have tried to contain one of Africa’s most cosmopolitan locales, but do so with no understanding of the customs or the many languages. But “Timbuktu” gets it. It spends its entire length observing life, jumping around sketches of life done in a slight deadpan that stresses their severity by playing calm. Not that its anger is ever in doubt.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge