Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako (Bamako, Waiting for Happiness) achieves the impossible with his latest feature, Timbuktu, a transcendent political poem as intellectually rigorous as it is beautiful.
An Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, Timbuktu is one of the finest elucidations of fundamentalist Sunni Islam and the jihadist mentality in recent memory. Yet it tells its story not with talking heads, embedded journalists, and political pundits, but through an eminently accessible, deeply moving human drama.
Sissako's episodic film was inspired by the brief occupation of the Malian city of Timbuktu in West Africa by the jihadist group Ansar Dine in 2012 and the atrocities they committed in the name of Islam.
Understated throughout, it follows several Muslim Timbuktu natives whose lives were turned upside down by gun-wielding men who dictated how they must dress and behave.
Sissako juxtaposes the stark, simple narrative, terse dialogue, and memorable characters with stunning photography that imbues the desert landscape and its barren soundscape with an awe-inspiring power.
The film opens with an elegant, dreamlike shot of a gazelle running across the sand. The camera pans to reveal the animal is pursued by a pickup truck piled high with a half-dozen men with AK-47s. They fire dozens of rounds, but fail to kill their prey.
A cut reveals the same group of men at target practice shooting at a row of African idols - the wooden, carved, ornamental and religious statuary one finds in many African homes and marketplaces.
The camera lingers on one of the pieces after it falls onto the sand, smoke gently curling out of a bullet hole. It occurs to the viewer these targets weren't chosen at random. They were meant to be destroyed - the brand of Islam these armed jihadis practice forbids virtually all forms of artistic expression as idolatrous.
The image is a reminder of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan carved into the side of a cliff in Afghanistan that the Taliban dynamited in 2001.
The absurdity evident in that act also permeates Timbuktu. As the story opens, a pair of foot soldiers go around town to introduce a new set of rules: Women must wear socks and gloves at all times. They also repeat the old rules: Smoking is forbidden, music is forbidden, dancing and singing are forbidden.
The jihadists, who are always armed - even when they enter the local mosque - are bemused when a fishmonger complains about the new edict. How can she handle fish, wash them, scale them while wearing wool gloves? They arrest her.
Whipping is a favorite form of punishment, especially of girls and women. One young woman gets 40 lashes for singing and another 40 because she was in the same room as the male musician who accompanied her.
Later, an unmarried couple is arrested for fornicating. They are buried up to the neck and stoned to death.
In other scenes, the local imam tries to have a reasoned debate with the occupiers about their interpretation of scripture. Confusing force with authority, as do all tyrants, they refuse to acknowledge the validity of rational argument.
Much of the film focuses on a series of tragedies that befall a small family of nomadic cow herders. Their story reminds us that the Islamist violence so prevalent in the region victimizes other Muslims far more often than people from the West.
Sissako's remarkable film presents these events with a lyrical subtlety that accentuates the horror.
Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. With Abel Jafri, Hichem Yacoubi, Toulou Kiki, Pino Desperado. In Arabic, French, Tamashek, Tuareg, and Bambara with English subtitles. Distributed by Cohen Media Group.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.