Some filmmakers mistake misery for poetry, often conflating the two in uncomfortable ways (see Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Biutiful” for a clear example). Abderrahmane Sissako never makes this mistake in “Timbuktu,” looking at tragedy without ever fetishizing it. The film, which premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival, is now playing in select theaters, and it’s a stirring example of how tragedy can be rendered with subtlety and grace.
Sissako looks at the occupation of Timbuktu by Islamic militants Ansar Dine. Sissako focuses on both the torturers and the tortured, and he gets moments of dark humor out of some of their interactions (a soldier having trouble driving a teenager’s truck). But Sissako builds to the increasingly severe rules the militants put on the people, showing how jihadism is about power, not faith, and, in the words of The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, “how farce turns to terror.” By the time the film reaches the stoning of a married couple (based on events that inspired the film), it’s gone far past the former into the latter, and Sissako has been established as one of the great humanist filmmakers of our time.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Dwight Brown, The Huffington Post
Peter Labuza, The Film Stage
Sissako, however, doesn’t hide from the horrors, evoking great tragedy through a number of sequences. But the approach never comes off with the same “atrocity porn” that plagued something such as “12 Years A Slave.” Most notable is the stoning of a couple (an actual event that served as the film’s inspiration) which begins before cutting to a rhythmic dance, each stone matching the beat. Sissako constantly finds a sort of aesthetic pleasure in the atrocities — bubbles slowly rising up from a river in one scene makes for a truly chilling moment — in addition to his comic resistance pieces. And as shot by “Blue Is the Warmest Color” director of photography Sofian El Fani, these images are often luscious, using the setting sun and the night sky to soak in the beauty. Read more.
Guy Lodge, HitFix
Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene
The film isn’t just important because it portrays several different aspects and factions of Islam, but also because it details the points of resistance that the townspeople take, the internal conflicts the Jihadis themselves face, and the ways in which the nomadic Tuareg people respond to the chaos. Read more.
Scott Tobias, The Dissolve
Sissako’s approach to Islamist violence in “Timbuktu” mirrors Terrence Malick’s approach to the invaders in both “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World”: as first and foremost a violation of nature. There may not be wealth in Timbuktu, but there’s a harmony of cultures that doesn’t take well to these heavy-handed impositions. Still, “Timbuktu’s” delicate tone is totally unexpected and specific to Sissako, who keeps finding notes of vulnerability, whether in Abdelkrim’s sublimated desire for Satima or in his young translator’s genuine sympathy for Kidane as Kidane submits to an interrogation that could cost him his life. He similarly finds a quiet resilience in a woman who defiantly sings through a public lashing for making music, or young men who play a soccer game without a ball, like the mimes in “Blow-Up.” Read more.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club
…for much of its running time, “Timbuktu” is a wry comedy, with its militants—international recruits, recent converts—awkwardly attempting to control the town, interacting with the inhabitants through translators, trying to flirt with local women, sneaking cigarettes (forbidden), arguing about soccer (ditto), or, in an extended scene, trying and failing to record a video declaring their rejection of the Western values with which they were raised. It’s a familiar gag—even the zealots can’t live up to their laws—but Sissako keeps repeating it and building on it until it stops being funny and people start being stoned to death, buried up to their necks in the dirt. In essence, “Timbuktu” is about how farce turns into terror. Read more.
Jay Weissberg, Variety
In the hands of a master, indignation and tragedy can be rendered with clarity yet subtlety, setting hysteria aside for deeper, more richly shaded tones. Abderrahmane Sissako is just such a master, and while previous films have showcased his skill at bringing magnetic dignity to his characters, “Timbuktu” confirms his status as one of the true humanists of recent cinema. Set in the early days of the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012, the film is a stunningly shot condemnation of intolerance and its annihilation of diversity, told in a way that clearly denounces without resorting to cardboard perpetrators. Read more.