Cannes 2014. Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu"

The Festival de Cannes is off to a good start with this bracing film from Mauritania in Competition.
Daniel Kasman

Rival red-carpet magnet Grace of Monacothe much-scoffed opening night selection of the Festival de Cannes, as if counter-programmed for the smaller, glamour-adverse contingent of the press corps on the Riviera, was the press screening of Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu. Placed mid-way or endwise of the festival, it would have appeared as a cool glass of water in a drought of clear-headed, thinking cinema engaged with the world. Placed at the festival's onset, I can only hope Sissako's bracingly direct, droll, earnest and politically acute drama serves to set the tone, engagement, and expertise we can expect from the premieres on the Croisette in 2014.

The festival already has its great opening: a digital-sleek image of a small gazelle's flight across the desert, chased, in a cut to a flag and then a hurtling vehicle, by a pickup full of radical Muslim gunmen bent on "tiring" it rather than "killing" it. Jump cut—all the violence in Timbuktu is shown in subtly aggressive and obvious breaks in continuity—to more armed men testing their aim on traditional and often female idols and statues. Cut to title card.

Timbuktu, the story of a roving fundamentalist Muslim band descending on an area and demanding strict, hyper-conservative and violently reinforced adherence to their interpretation of Allah's law, works in this way with powerful iconography together cut at sharp angles. Toyota Hilux pickups, the variety of headwear the bandits cover themselves with, lone tents in the desert, a woman washing her hair, another offering her hands to be cut, the absurd obviousness of official surveillance, of armed patrols ridiculously scouring a small town at night, the reposing integrity of a judge, of an imam. In the tradition of didactic cinema, the easeful direction often makes the drama resemble a stage, with participants as both specific and representative, and gestures—optical defects, jump cuts, a few surreal asides—are made to some subtle reflexivity.

Sissako has a central human story of conflict between two locals framed by the judgment of the visiting radicals, but surrounding that are a disparate series of anecdotes, crimes and punishments, street scenes, transgressions, and idle time. The tone is calm and attentive even though politics of society, gender, violence, and religion are a part of every edit Sissako makes. This hanging calmness, which seems to linger before and after a shot's action, grants even the villains—the roving bandits who speak at least three languages and need Contempt-like roundelays of translation and cell phones to communicate their demands and admonitions to the population—a thoughtful, careful compassion making them felt as acutely human, though no less wrong in their thinking and horrible in their practices.

It all resembles a Western too, of course, the bandits rolling into a desert town and claiming it theirs. There is no Wayne or Eastwood to resist the Kalashnikovs—each visitor seems equipped with a gun—and even the imam seems powerless to correct the gang's interpretation of the Koran. The closest we have to a hero is a weak-eyed and weepy musician driven not to fight against the itinerant occupiers, but to fight within his own quasi-community. His wife, with the inwardly driven look of a woman long used to being subjugated in society, seems to absorb all love and pain, dampening it by her all-seeing eyes and putting it in a much more expansive, almost cosmic perspective. She acts by the end in the film's most heroic, desperate and stupid gesture. Her daughter, the hope for the generation, raises her cell phone to heaven to try to get hear her father one last time.

And all about, a small maelstrom of ironies—including a beautiful scene of young boys playing football with a phantom ball, as the ball itself has been outlawed—and foolishnesses. The urgency of the film settles into the community's quagmire of waiting for the next transgression, the next punishment. A couple is buried to their neck and stoned to death and Sissako shows us neither crime nor judgment but just inhuman repercussion in his typical, simple staccato reveal. And each cut in the film feels like a small reveal, moving with a motivation for revelation. And what better way to start a festival than that?

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