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Movie review: Hope shines through in ‘Timbuktu’

We hear a lot about Islamic fundamentalists terrorizing people in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but seldom does the media acknowledge the atrocities taking place in sub-Saharan Africa, where the al-Qaeda-backed Ansar Dine is cruelly enforcing sharia law in northern Mali.

The Oscar-nominated “Timbuktu” aims to rectify that with its powerful story about a city beset by AK-47-toting bullies shooting up Sufi shrines and punishing citizens for such mundane activities as playing music or kicking a soccer ball.

The images are haunting, especially the sight of two alleged adulterers being buried up to their necks in sand before being stoned to death. Or a beautiful girl with an equally beautiful voice being lashed 80 times simply for daring to sing. But what sticks with you longest in writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako’s devastating portrait of brutal, didactic rule is the indestructibility of the human spirit.

You can take away a kid’s soccer ball, but you can’t destroy his ability to play the game using an imaginary one. It’s moments like that that lend hope amid the intense anger induced by Sissako’s film, which centers on the affect the Ansar Dine is having on a desert-dwelling family that foolishly believes it is far removed from the fray in nearby Timbuktu.

While conceding that they miss the neighbors who’ve fled for refugee camps, cattle-herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), and their precious 12-year-old daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), are determined to enjoy their blissful existence, ignoring laws like those that require women to always have their heads and hands cloaked.

Fearless, Satima even stands up to the amourous rebel leader, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), whenever he comes calling, usually when Kidane is conveniently away. But fate is fickle, and Kidane’s family soon finds itself in the thick of the mayhem.

How their troubles, and those of many of the townsfolk, are resolved will deeply trouble you. But they will also awaken you to a screwed-up world where armed thugs inflict their lawless reign in the name of religion. As the local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) bravely says to the terrorists, “Where is God in all this?” Where, indeed!

Movie review: “TIMBUKTU.” Rated PG-13 for some violence and thematic elements. Cast includes Ibrahim Ahmed, Toulou Kiki and Layla Walet Mohamed. Written and directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. Grade: A.

FILE - In this Tuesday, April 24, 2012 file photo, fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during a hostage handover, in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali. The movie ìTimbuktuî , an Oscar nominee, explores Islamic extremism and can also serve as an exploration of the harsh ideology of Boko Haram militants in Nigeria, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the slain gunmen who attacked the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris. A slain assailant suspected in Copenhagen attacks that killed two people this weekend may have been inspired by Islamic militants, Danish authorities said.(AP Photo / File)