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In 'Timbuktu,' lust for power disturbs peace

Timbuktu97 minRated PG-13

“Timbuktu” is stunningly beautiful to look at, each scene deceptively simple yet ultimately complex while capturing a reality that is both timely and universal.

Set in the community of Mali, not far from Timbuktu, the colors of the landscape are taupe, cinnabar and sand, broken only by truncated trees with small green canopies. The people are steeped in tradition, their Muslim religion deeply embedded in their daily lives.

And then arrives a cohort of jihadists with AK-47s hanging from their shoulders and megaphones in hand, announcing the new rules that they insist the community will live by. There will be no smoking, no soccer, no music and no adultery, and the women must wear socks and gloves. The justification for these edicts is that it is the will of Allah.

What is immediately evident is the hypocrisy of these men. They argue about the soccer World Cup, clandestinely smoke cigarettes and covet the local women, even those who are married. In reality they are poseurs, wrapped in a shallow theocracy, seeking to justify their lust for power and control by using the guise of righteousness and declared piety.

In contrast is the courageous resistance of the townspeople. They refuse to stop playing music, some lovely and lyrical, and insist that wearing gloves is burdensome.

And there is one transcendent scene where the boys of the town play a game of soccer, running across a field, passing to one another, turning, jumping, as they laugh and call out to one another. The only thing missing is a ball, for having a ball is forbidden.

The film soon turns tragic and involves Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), and daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohammed). Kidane is a cattle herder and Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohammed) his young shepherd. All is tranquil and balanced until an accident occurs that sweeps Kidane away, no matter that he and his family have managed thus far to live apart from the jihadists and their rule.

Events are set in motion that suddenly change what has been a pastoral and peaceful life for Kidane and those he loves above all else. Most especially Toya, his “little bird.”

There is a story to be told in this film, and it unfolds at a slow and deliberate pace that is both surprising and lovely to behold. The interactions are unhurried, even when anger creeps into a confrontation between a jihadist and a woman who refuses to wear gloves.

The shots are often panoramic, with no frenetic breakaway — a solitary figure standing beneath a small tree, a small boy walking along a river bank herding his cattle, each scene delivered with breathtaking patience that belies what is at stake for Kidane and his family.

What is so compellingly clear is that this world of “Timbuktu,” both ancient and reluctantly contemporary, is both distant from life as we know it, yet also strikingly similar and powerfully universal.

Men who seek power for power’s sake are ever with us. They appear in different guises and possess elaborate rationales that prove to be, in the end, only cruel and empty.