Abderrahmane Sissako's superb film about life in a city under the control of violent Islamists works on many different levels. It has some of the same comic absurdism that ran through Chris Morris's Four Lions, but the satire is combined with lyricism and a sense of mounting tragedy.
"In the land of Islam, it is forbidden to do any old thing," one character observes early on as the extremists set about banning everything in Timbuktu, from football to smoking and playing music. They demand men roll up the legs of their trousers and women fishmongers are forced to wear gloves, which makes handling filleting knives all but impossible.
The extremists are first seen behaving like teenage boys, letting off their guns at wildlife and old statues. They turn out to be very immature, with a limited frame of reference when it comes to religion, justice or anything else. The main plot line involves a day-dreaming, music-loving herder who owns eight cattle. He is devoted to his wife and daughter but after his beloved cow, GPS, is shot by a local fisherman, he becomes involved in a dispute with deadly consequences – one in which the fundamentalists' attempts at law enforcement backfire entirely.
Sissako's approach isn't polemical. He tells his story in a wry and detached fashion. The extremists aren't unsympathetic. They have their own struggles, with engines that break down or the desire one or two hold for smoking the occasional cigarette. When Timbuktu was programmed at a festival in Belgium earlier this year, the festival had to be abandoned because of a terrorist threat. This, though, is a film that should be seen as widely as possible.
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