Here is a film that might make you want to punch a Muslim, except that its subject is the oppression by Muslims of Muslims, and the director, Abderrahman Sissako, is Muslim himself. What we have instead is what Islamophobes have clamored for: a denunciation by a Muslim of the excesses of Islamism. Timbuktu might end up disappointing hard-core Islamophobes, however, since Sissako makes it fairly clear that those excesses are fueled by selective, self-serving readings of Islamic scripture rather than by something essential to Islam itself. Sissako is also wise enough to remember that Islamism is not an intrusion on otherwise peaceful, innocent communities, since one of the central conflicts in his story has nothing to do with religion or anyone's interpretation of it. Most importantly, he's enough of an artist as a director to make his story pictorially memorable, assuring it of a lasting impact.
Sissako is Mauritanian but his subject is Mali, where the title city is located. In Timbuktu the 21st century exists alongside timeless folkways. Satellite dishes crown the roofs of mud-brick buildings of perhaps incalculable age; nomads communicate with cellphones; a favorite cow is named GPS. To this place the jihadis came with all their absurd chickenshit laws, announced with megaphones in as many languages as the intruders know. Many of the occupiers don't know the local languages, making interpreters essential while highlighting a mutual incomprehension that a common faith can't overcome. In one case a commander requires an underling to inform him in English of what he sees at a crime scene. Yet these strangers claim a religious entitlement to tell the natives how to live. Women have to wear socks and gloves in the marketplace. The idea is so ridiculous and insulting to one of the female fishmongers ("We were brought up in honor and didn't have to wear gloves!") that she's willing to be arrested because she's sick and tired of the jihadi bullshit. Soccer and all sports are banned, even though some of the jihadis are football fans. One moment of comic relief comes when we overhear them talking about how many times somebody won or lost in the last few years. Almost certainly an unspoiled audience will assume they're talking about armies in war, but they're really debating the superiority of French and Spanish soccer teams. A fan of Spain accuses the French of bribing Brazil to throw the 1998 World Cup final; I wonder how he'd explain last year's semifinal. In any event, after a ball is confiscated, local sportsmen console themselves with a pantomime game, though when the hardcore jihadis ride by they revert to innocent calisthenics. Music is also forbidden by these totalitarian puritans, though one of them questions whether they should break in on someone singing praises to God. There's less hesitation when they find a mixed gathering with a woman singing secular lyrics while a man plays guitar. For this they're flogged, the woman defiantly singing the same song until the pain is too great. At least they didn't commit adultery. The penalty for that is stoning, and the jihadis ain't playing. No ducking or dodging for the guilty here; they're buried up to their necks and the rest is just target practice.
From a distance, from his tent, the herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pinto) watches with concern as his nomad neighbors start to move away. He wants to stay, however, even though a jihadi commander is making suspicious visits to his wife and daughter when he's away. He's more concerned with Amadou, a cranky fisherman (who wears western clothes, for what that's worth) who begrudges Kidane's cattle drinking at the lake because he's afraid they'll foul his nets. His fears aren't unfounded, and when the beloved GPS wanders into his nets he kills the cow with a spear. Little does Amadou realize that he's brought a spear to a gunfight, though from all appearances the weapon Kidane brings to their confrontation goes off accidentally during their damp scuffle. Their conflict has had nothing to do with jihad until now, when the jihadis have to act as judges in the case. They set a blood money fine (in kind) that's more than Kidane is able or willing to pay. All that leaves to be decided is whether he'll see his family one more time....
Timbuktu is a photogenic location -- some of the architecture will remind movie buffs of Ousmane Sembene's classic Moolaade -- and Sissako films his story is a classically artful style. He makes brilliant use of the widescreen frame in a way that can only be appreciated on the big screen. Kidane has crossed a shallow lake to confront Amadou. After the gun goes off, he lays in the water awhile in shock, then springs back to life to assure himself that he is alive. Sissako cuts to a wide shot that encompasses both shores as Kidane staggers back to his side. We might almost miss Amadou stirring and lurching upright in the other direction. From this godlike distance we see Amadou struggle for the shore and fail as Kidane plows ahead without a look back. The moment has some of the same cold grandeur of the drowning scene in Under the Skin. At other points you wonder whether Sissako is quoting other filmmakers. The opening scene of jihadis in a jeep chasing a deer, opening with the deer, might remind you of Ran or Hatari!, while genre fans, at least, are tempted to see any shot of a ball bouncing ominously as an homage to Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill. The director is enough his own man, however, that none of this looks fannish or blatant.
During that opening scene, one of the jihadi deer hunters tells the others not to shoot, but to tire the animal. If there's anything blatant about the scene, it's not any embedded homage but the thematic premonition. Apart from Kidane's storyline, Timbuktu is mainly about the wearing down of resistance through relentless petty regulation. That angry fishmonger ends up wearing gloves after all, and no one really scores a victory over the jihadis except the local madwoman, whose apparent immunity to the new dress code seems to confirm the old pulp chestnut about Muslims fearing to harm the insane.Then again, selectivity and hypocrisy characterize these jihadis. Practically the first order we hear is that smoking is forbidden, yet one of the leaders, the man paying suspicious attention to Kidane's wife, while needing an interpreter to talk to her, goes into the desert to sneak a few drags, only to be told by his driver that everyone knows of his habit, but no one apparently cares. The most damning case of selective rules involves an Anglophone jihadi (Nigerian, I presume?) courting a local girl. The girl's mother turns him down because she barely knows the man, despite his warning that he'll take the girl "in a bad way." The next day, we learn that he grabbed the girl and had his commander marry them. When a local qadi (for want of a more accurate term) protests, the commander first asks why anyone would complain about getting the guy for a son-in-law ("He's perfect!"), then quotes scripture commanding that righteous fighters like this guy should be given brides. One gets a feeling the qadi knows Islam better than the commander does, but the man with the power decides what religion requires. These jihadis claim to be all about religion, but Sissako seems to know better. People who wonder what's the matter with Islam probably should take his word for it. Timbuktu may not be the best of last year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film -- it lost to Ida here while sweeping the year's French film awards -- but it would have deserved to win if a win meant more Americans would see it. If any 2014 film needs to be seen by more people, this may be it.