Timbuktu, the entry from Mauritania that'll compete for the best foreign-language Oscar at this Sunday's Academy Awards, is set in neighboring Mali in West Saharan Africa. The movie, which opens Friday exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre, tells the story of a cattle herdsman who gets embroiled in the stringent enforcement of law and order by militant jihadists who have overtaken the city.
Under a well-appointed tent among the windswept dunes of Timbuktu's outskirts, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) lives with his wife and 12-year-old daughter. Kidane has a shepherd boy to tend to his tiny herd and ample tea to while away the afternoons in the company of his family. But not far off, dusty Timbuktu is under vigilant watch. Gun-wielding Islamists prowl with bullhorns, reiterating what seem like improvised decrees in French, Arabic, and the native Tamasheq: All women must be fully covered, including socks and gloves. Music is outlawed. Soccer too. One of the most heartrending and visually striking sequences in the film is a pickup match on a sandy pitch played in earnest by the village youth without a ball.
Kidane has managed to avoid the violence since the Sharia-wielding militants arrived. Timbuktu was indeed overtaken by jihadists in April 2012, and was under their rule until the following year. But beyond the partisan quibbling of the extremists when they talk soccer, the film makes no explicit reference to date. Some critics have suggested that this is director Abderrahmane Sissako hinting at the region's enduring instability.
When Kidane inadvertently kills a nearby fisherman in a squabble over a cow and a fishing net, he must confront the brutal realities of the new judicial system, a system which is constantly amended to justify the actions of its disciples.
The straightforward narrative of crime and punishment is spliced with the daily anxieties and horrors of townsfolk living under Sharia law — an Imam intervening on behalf of an angry mother whose daughter was captured and wed to a militant against her will, a woman flogged in public for singing in her home, two adulterers gruesomely stoned. The film is also distinguished for the subtle ways it humanizes the jihadists themselves. We don't sympathize with them, per se. But we see that they are people too, young men with allegiances to soccer clubs and bashfulness on camera and sundry vices and predilections.
Those who've seen their share of foreign titles from Sony Pictures Classics will recognize Timbuktu's slow and sometimes meandering narrative approach. The strength here is not in what we'd traditionally call "plot." It is in the incidents and mood of a city in crisis.
It's also refreshing not to see scenes of American combat troops descending on foreign soil to save the day. Timbuktu has the whiff of the mundane. Though we see one man's plight, it could be any other man's. We do not sense that change is on the horizon. The film, then, advances the idea that this intimate violence and persecution is in many ways more horrific because it is unremarkable.