“TIMBUKTU” My rating: B+
97 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
Superficially “Timbuktu” resembles one of those old WWII dramas about the Nazi occupation of a peaceful village.
The difference is that the occupiers in “Timbuktu” are the gunmen of ISIS, and that writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako eschews propaganda for an insightful and thoroughly humane study of both the oppressors and the oppressed.
“Timbuktu” is a Mauritanian film that was a nominee this year for best foreign language Oscar (and which cleaned up at this year’s Cesar Awards). It is set in a desert region of Mali, which shares a border with Mauritania in northwest Africa.
It opens with gorgeous footage of a gazelle bounding across an arid landscape. The animal is being chased by a truck flying the black flag of ISIS while passengers fire their guns — a stark example of natural simplicity compromised by human cruelty.
This is followed by a scene of beautiful wooden tribal effigy figures being used for target practice.
ISIS fighters go through a village (the buff-colored buildings are reminiscent of the pueblo architecture of the American Southwest), using a bullhorn to announce the rules of the occupation: Music is forbidden. Smoking is forbidden. All women must cover their heads and wear socks and gloves.
Sissako and co-writer Kessen Tall don’t provide one through story. Rather, they give us moments from daily life as experienced by numerous characters.
One story line centers on the nomadic herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), who lives in a tent with his beautiful wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Despite a few modern conveniences like cell phones, Kidane’s family are at peace with their environment, basking in life’s simple pleasures. (They remind of Bergman’s “holy family” of actors in “The Seventh Seal.”)
But their little Eden won’t last. The local ISIS leader, Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri), covets Satima. And Kidane’s dispute with a neighbor will have tragic repercussions.