In the hands of a master, indignation and tragedy can be rendered with clarity yet subtlety, setting hysteria aside for deeper, more richly shaded tones. Abderrahmane Sissako is just such a master, and while previous films have showcased his skill at bringing magnetic dignity to his characters, “Timbuktu” confirms his status as one of the true humanists of recent cinema. Set in the early days of the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012, the film is a stunningly shot condemnation of intolerance and its annihilation of diversity, told in a way that clearly denounces without resorting to cardboard perpetrators. The film’s Cannes berth and critical acclaim will translate to strong Euro arthouse play with niche Stateside appeal.
Most news reports from the time focused on the destruction by foreign Islamic fundamentalists of Timbuktu’s cultural heritage sites — unconscionable acts that scar a people’s psyche. Sissako powerfully alludes to this within the first few minutes, as a truckload of jihadists machine-gun traditional masks and statuettes. It’s a perfect way of suggesting the laying waste to centuries-old traditions while allowing the director to then focus on people, rather than artifacts.
As in his previous pics (“Bamako,” “Waiting for Happiness”), Sissako offers a choral structure, here designed to convey the multicultural makeup of the area where city dwellers of various ethnicities and the nomadic Tuareg people coexist in generally respectful fashion. Newly arrived Arabic-, French- and English-speaking jihadists patrol the city and its environs (shooting was actually done in the Mauritanian cities of Oualata and Nema), enforcing bans on music, soccer, most socializing, and uncovered women. The local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) calmly argues against their narrow, ultra-orthodox dogma, but he has no influence over these intruders, a rag-tag bunch composed of doctrinally committed leaders and their largely irresolute young followers.
Rather than turning the jihadist captains into stereotypical demons, “Timbuktu” shows them as men who have not entirely forgotten their hearts but encased them in steel, projecting an outward sympathy while holding to a strict interpretation of scripture that denies self-realization, especially for women. Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) drives to the tent of a Tuareg family to convince the strong-willed Satima (Toulou Kiki) to cover her head. Her neighbors have already fled, and she tells her loving husband, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), that they should move closer to other people, but he wants to stay put.
A goat and cattle herder, Kidane is the proud father of Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), 12, and guardian of orphan Issan (Mehdi AG Mohamed). While driving the herd to water, Issan loses control of his charges and a prize cow gets caught in the nets of fisherman Amadou. Furious, Amadou spears the beast (the animal’s demise is tenderly shot); Kidane arrives packing a pistol merely as a threat, but their physical struggle makes the gun discharge, and the fisherman is killed. The sequence has a startling emotional grip yet also a protean beauty, capturing the action in a long shot of the shimmering lakeside expanse.
Punishment is swift, not just for Kidane but also for others who have transgressed the fundamentalists’ interpretation of sharia law. In town, soldiers arrest four people for making music, subjecting the singer, Fatou (Fatoumata Diawara), to 40 lashes. She kneels, dressed in a black abaya, tears staining her face, gently crying out and softly singing. It’s impossible not to compare this with Patsey’s flogging in “12 Years a Slave,” which was pitched at a far more hysterical level as the camera registered her grotesquely flayed flesh. Steve McQueen’s scene is painful to watch and emotionally draining, yet Sissako renders a similar sequence with significantly more discretion and makes its effect far more profoundly felt.
Abdelkrim shoots off the top of a tree in the dip between sand dunes, as if even nature is immodestly exposing herself. Individuality is being snuffed out, and though momentarily protected by her eccentricities, the brightly robed Zabou (Kettly Noel), part Lady of Shalott, part madwoman, surely won’t be allowed to keep flouting the authority of the self-designated Islamic police. “Timbuktu” makes very clear that this wave of intolerance isn’t grown from Malian soil, even if the relationship between nomadic shepherd and rooted fisherman is fraught with its own tension. “We are the guardians of all deeds,” says a jihadist to the imam, thereby dismissing any attempt at freedom of expression and movement.
Sissako states he was unbearably moved by an online video of an unmarried couple buried up to their heads and stoned to death; he includes a similar scene, showing just enough to make the viewer wince, yet not so much as to feel like a gory spectacle. It’s part of the power of “Timbuktu,” which endows its characters with pride and love, shows their dignity stolen, and respects their humanity enough to refuse a pornographic clarity when they’re beaten, or worse. As always in the director’s films, women are wise, forceful presences, far too often victims of men’s headstrong impulsiveness.
Performances are mesmeric, even the smaller roles, and Sissako’s unfailing sense of color, contrasting with the pale desert landscape, holds the eye without distracting from the story. D.p. Sofiane El Fani creates stately compositions quite removed from the neorealism of frequent collaborator Abdellatif Kechiche, and the music, with its combination of traditional Malian melodies and more Western orchestral accompaniment, is beautifully suited to the images.