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On the surface, it seems like the only thing that unites “‘71” and “Timbuktu” are a few scenes where American audiences could have used subtitles. “’71” is a taut thriller, set in the midst of the Northern Irish Troubles, while “Timbuktu” is a meandering, even pastoral drama that takes place against the backdrop of the Malian independence struggle. But are portraits of religious and ethnic conflict. Both are set in a single city, both show groups challenging the legitimacy of rulers. These are the only fiction films on the 52nd New York Film Festival’s main slate that deal with terror and wars on it — and have different things to say on the subject.
Festival critics have praised “’71” as a sturdy, well-constructed action movie. It’s alluring for being helmed by a first timer, Yann Demange, and for starring promising young actor Jack O’Connell. But while a decent thriller, “’71” is more than just an apolitical genre exercise. A creased veteran doctor sums up the film’s outlook in the third act: War’s just “rich cunts telling thick cunts to kill poor cunts.”
For this Guy-Ritchie-and-Philosophy line, all credit goes to screenwriter Gregory Burke — who might be the real auteur of this project. Burke is a celebrated Scottish tough guy playwright. Think Wayne Rooney, but from Dumfermline and writing plays. He stunned the Fringe Festival with his debut “Gagarin Way,” and established himself even more with the internationally successful Black Watch, about a Scottish regiment in Iraq. Burke is known for marrying cynicism with a streetwise sense of humor.
The cynicism is on full display in “’71.” The State has groomed Jack O’Connell’s character, young squaddie Hook, to go off and be a cog in the inexorable war machine. Relentless forces outside the characters’ control are responsible for The Troubles. The war is something you’re born into. Burke’s script uses different sets of male relationships to drive this home. Young Sean (Barry Keoghan) has doubts about the older Provos, who are rebelling against Boyle (David Wilmot) and his old guard IRA. There’s the cocky young Loyalist who idolizes his uncle in the RUC, and Hook’s own relationship with his younger brother. They’re almost all vehicles for tragedy.
Burke picks no sides — he damns them all. The IRA and the Provos are rife with internal division, its members willing to sell each other out at the drop of a tweed cap. The boys doing the buying are no better. The British army is just another bureaucracy, covering up botched missions for political gain. The Ulster Protestants just want to bash some heads in.
Demange’s style puts the finishing touches on this bleak world. The setting provides occasional flair. The housewives using trash can lids as sonic weapons are unforgettable. Still, it’s never enough to overwhelm the every-man characters. The lack of Irish music in the soundtrack emphasizes that this tale grounds the specific in the universal rather than the other way around.
While “’71” says that conflict dehumanizes everyone involved, Abderrahmane Sissako’s snapshot of the Islamist insurrection in Mali, “Timbuktu”, says the opposite. Sissako’s characters can’t fully abase themselves, no matter the darkness of their circumstances.
That’s not to say that Sissako doesn’t take sides. In the opening moments of the film, we see a row of tribal masks and statues. Simple but beautiful, they might be from the Met. Then bullets start to riddle the artifacts, as the jihadists use them for target practice. Later one walks through town, Nikes jutting from beneath his robes. He announces through a megaphone: “Smoking is forbidden. Music is forbidden. Women must wear socks and gloves.” Executions come later. The soldiers are hypocrites, too. They debate the merits of Lionel Messi over cigarettes even as they ban smoking and soccer.
But while Sissako is ardently anti-Islamist, he avoids making these villains into monsters. As the jihadists search for rebel musicians, one relaxed warrior stares at the moon as the singing drifts through the night. It looks like a Caspar David Friedrich painting. In a hilarious scene, two fighters debate the artistic direction of a propaganda video. Sissako’s Islamists aren’t ravaging archetypes, but like the fighters who confounded Western media with their tweets commemorating Robin Williams.
Sissako’s heroes, though, are ordinary people. He used nonprofessional actors, drawing on the local populace to great effect. He is particularly concerned with women, with characters like the local fishmonger who use a uniquely feminine strength to shame and resist the new regime — a welcome contrast to Hollywood’s cardboard Strong Female Characters.
The director isn’t shy from debating religion, either. The local imam often spars with the jihadists. Sometimes he insults: “Were I not committed to my moral improvement, I would be the first to join you.” He also levels theological charges, asking “Where is forgiveness? Where is pity? Where is God in all this?” It’s on those terms that we must hope for the characters left adrift at the film’s end.