There is a healthy whiff of formula, in this otherwise fine film from Abderrahmane Sissako, that blocks Mauritania’s “Timbuktu” from the threshold of greatness for me. It’s very subtle, which I like, and it’s wise enough to employ an archly comic tone on occasion. The movie carries a consistent feeling of dread, and the light laughter, is a welcome respite from the weight of the eventual consequences. Now some may appreciate the lack of visual horror when some of these violent acts are carried out, and Sissako keeps the narrative on an only mildly upsetting path throughout. My initial feeling calls that a little bit of a cheat–especially when the denouement hangs on the old chestnut of the struggle over a firearm, followed by the brief mystery of who-shot-who. And there’s a bit of over-reliance on sentimentality, which I guess I can forgive considering the starkness of the overall exercise. In other words, “Timbuktu” gets so much right, that I lamented when it stepped wrong.
How I loathe labeling a motion picture “Important”, but I guess this recent nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards (it lost to Poland’s “Ida”) qualifies to a degree. Inspired by real-life events, stemming from the 2012 occupation of Timbuktu, Mali by Islamic militants, we are given some brief and sobering townsfolk snapshots. A cattle herder (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pinto) tends to his tiny plot of land with his wife and daughter, only to become involved in a dispute with a local fisherman. When that conflict becomes deadly, it is just one of an array of “offenses” that spark the violent Islamists to mete out harsh punishments. “Murder” is one thing, but a women punished for selling fish without covering her hands with gloves? Playing soccer and playing music are also forbidden. And adultery will get you stoned to death. “Timbuktu” was filmed in Arabic and French, and is gorgeously shot utilizing many unforgettable images. See this uniquely powerful film.