“Don’t kill him—wear him down.” Those are among the first words we hear in Abderrahmane Sissako’s devastating African drama Timbuktu, said by a group of gun-toting jihadists as they chase down a fleeing gazelle. The scene sets a chilling tone that’s impossible to shake: Terror, in this case, isn’t about killing the body, but the spirit. Wear an animal down and absolute control is assured.
After this bloodcurdling opening, the film settles into a semirelaxed groove as it sketches in the lives of a small community also under siege. In the west African state of Mali—specifically in the city of Timbuktu—Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a shepherd, lives with his wife and child in the local dunes. When one of Kidane’s cows is tangled in a trawler’s net and is killed by an angry fisherman, the incident upsets a peace that could charitably be termed fragile. Islamic thugs rule the town and preach a bastardized gospel via megaphone: No music, no uncovered female bodies, no soccer—though even these terrorists discuss the career of Zidane in hallowed tones.
The residents live with the oppression as best they can, either avoiding contact with the radicals or openly defying them. One woman, clearly nearing insanity, walks around in red high-heels and a flowing dress. The jihadists leave her alone—she’s too far gone to be made an effective example of. Punishment for others runs the gamut from 40 lashes to death by machine gun, though Sissako, with a few blunt-force exceptions, typically refrains from showing violence, preferring to juxtapose cruel acts with poetic images. (The stoning of a married couple is paralleled with a man doing an impassioned interpretive dance, the offscreen noise of rocks smashing flesh perversely acting as rhythmic backbeat.)
Kidane’s inevitable confrontation with the fisherman takes place against a sun-dappled landscape; you can feel the presence of a dispassionate deity in every shimmer of light on water. Sissako’s methods are confrontational, yet never to the point that you feel you’re watching sacrificial lambs instead of people caught in a horrible situation. In this terrible context, madness and death are blessings. It’s living that’s the curse.
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