The hot Malian sands of Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu” are a cool reservoir of placid beauty, where desert dunes are swept by quiet ripples of colorful, everyday village life and haphazard storms of violence.
“Timbuktu,” the Oscar-nominated foreign-language film from Mauritania, is set outside Timbuktu, a place associated with exotic adventure. But here it’s occupied by Islamist forces, as it was from early 2012 until 2013 before French and Malian troops pushed them out.
But “forces” suggests a more formal command than the patrolmen seen in Sissako’s poetically humanist film. Avoiding stereotypes, the movie shrinks larger political and religious battles down to the people of a desert town — city dwellers and nomadic Tuareg people out in the dunes — being forced to change by a handful of halfhearted oppressors.
The orders of the newly arrived fundamentalists (Abel Jafri plays their leader, with subtle uncertainty) would be satirical if they weren’t so cruel. One with a bullhorn walks the streets, warning “not to sit in front of one’s house, to do any old thing, to spend some time in the street.” Another pair argues furiously about a beating that turns out to be a Spanish soccer match.
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These armed enforcers of Sharia law aren’t true believers, but merely lazy, ragtag gunmen (some speak Arabic, others French or English) who just shrug when a local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) questions their jihad. They spend a lot of time on their cellphones. Not obeying their own bans on soccer or music, they’re playing a role without even that much dedication to it.
Sissako views the town’s people and its intruders obliquely, roaming from character to character. Outside the city is Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a cattle herder who lives with his wife (Toulou Kiki) and 12-year-old daughter, whose peaceful life is interrupted. He’s told to cover the head of his wife, and then when his prized cow is snared by fishermen’s nets, a confrontation ensues.
There are moments here of mesmerizing beauty: a pantomimed soccer match, played on a dusty lot with an imaginary ball; a Malian song gorgeously sung by a woman (Fatoumata Diawara) clandestinely at night (she’ll be whipped for the offense); a fatal struggle on a shallow, shimmering lake, seen from a distance.
These images of “Timbuktu” quietly, passionately argue for the richness of life against the intolerance of those who would suffocate it.
(At the Tivoli.)
Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:37
In several languages with subtitles