The intriguingly unorthodox "Timbuktu," one of five films vying for a foreign-language Oscar, is a provocative, sometimes satiric drama about the sort of Islamic extremists who make life, especially in the outer reaches, so treacherous these days.
Though the film, set around 2012, is specific to the country of Mali and particular to the city of Timbuktu in the days just after jihadists took control of the region, director Abderrahmane Sissako crafts a universal indictment of repression in the absurd policies and atrocious realities of such regimes.
Right in the opening scene, armed militants try to gun down a gazelle for sport, the animal outrunning the shooters despite their high-powered rifles and speeding jeep. It's not long before the men are on the hunt again, this time in search of the source of a lyrical song wafting through sand-encrusted Timbuktu. Making music has recently been deemed a crime.
Indeed, anything that speaks of freedom and individual choice is fair game. Socks are mandated. Soccer is banned. Women must wear gloves in public. Even the fishmonger in the market is not exempt. The local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) makes logical pleas on her behalf but fails to sway the lunatics running this asylum.
The screenplay — by the French Mauritania director and Malian co-writer Kessen Tall, in her feature debut — is a mesmerizing blend of the horrific and the humorous as it boils ideology down to the personal level. It's one of the qualities that began drawing attention to the movie when it picked up the Francois Chalais Prize and the Ecumenical Jury award at the Cannes Film Festival last spring. As for "Timbuktu's" Oscar run, it marks the first time Mauritania has had a film in competition.
The relative isolation of Timbuktu proves an ideal spot to pit the simplicity of desert life against the excesses of extremism (the film was shot in neighboring Mauritania). The dignity and common sense of ordinary people stand in contrast to the jihadists and their growing list of restrictions.
The land is not much more forgiving than the fundamentalists. The action moves between the dunes, where Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a cattle herder and the central protagonist, and his family live in a tent, and the sun-baked, wind-swept Timbuktu. French cinematographer Sofian El Fani, who first attracted notice for 2013's sexual coming of age "Blue Is the Warmest Color," is as sensitive in capturing the haunting beauty of this place and its people.
Kidane is a gentle, artistic soul who cares deeply for his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and stepson, Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed). Living on the dunes helps him avoid dealing with the new dictates and play his music if he wishes.
Though the militants are the region's primary threat, his downfall is rooted in a more traditional conflict between the fishermen who line the lake with their nets and the cattle that want to drink there. When one of the men, Amadou (played by a local fisherman named Amadou Haidara), kills a cow that's become tangled in his nets, it sets off a chain of tragedies. The defining one is Kidane's accidental killing of the man during their confrontation over the death of the cow.
"Timbuktu" doesn't shy from the implications of Amadou's death or others the film touches on. One of the more chilling images is of a couple found guilty of adultery. They are buried in sand from the neck down, then stoned to death. Though it represents but a single scene, it is based on a real incident, the one that inspired Sissako to make the film.
It is why the humor that he's woven in comes as both a surprise and a relief: the teenager making a video denouncing his former dreams of becoming a rapper and his new role as a soldier being "directed," the chief jihadist (Salem Dendou) demonstrating how to make it more emotional. The near daily appearance of a megaphone-wielding militant in the streets announcing the latest restrictions in multiple dialects. In all, six languages are used in the film.
Everywhere, Sissako exposes the contradictions. The chief jihadist may be the main rule enforcer, but he is also a habitual rule breaker — sneaking cigarettes and flirting with Kidane's wary and wise wife.
The most insane example is La chanteuse (Fatoumata Diawara). Unhinged, roaming the streets, singing, laughing, taunting passersby, remnants of a black chador dragging in the dust behind her. Her craziness puts even the fundamentalists on edge.
More tragic and telling is Kidane's case. As his crime is discussed and his fate weighed, the simple cattle herder becomes the most eloquent spokesman for rational thought in truthfully describing his responsibility in the matter — a voice of reason caught in the shifting sands and mores of Timbuktu.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes; Arabic, Bambara, French, English, Songhay, Tamasheq with English subtitles