A movie review of “Timbuktu,” a powerful, brutal, lyrical story of Islamic fundamentalist rebels running roughshod over a Malian city. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

Share story

“Timbuktu,” a Mauritanian story of Islamic fundamentalist rebels running roughshod over a Malian city, is powerful and brutal, but not for the reasons you might think.

Gifted director Abderrahmane Sissako keeps violent acts on screen to a minimum, setting his gaze on the desert landscape and the morally complex characters caught up in this tragedy. The result is a film that is both lyrical and savage, sometimes amusing and always horrifying.

Though the narrative execution is far from perfect — the main story line goes in and out of focus — “Timbuktu” has so many memorable scenes that we forgive this flaw. Some of the most vivid moments include a group of young men playing “fake” soccer (the rebels have outlawed the sport and just about everything else); a wide shot of a lake after a neighbors’ dispute (you have to see it to appreciate it); the harrowing stoning (very brief) of a couple; and the list goes on.

Movie Review ★★★½  

‘Timbuktu,’ with Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki. Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, from a screenplay by Sissako and Kessen Tall. 97 minutes. In French, Arabic, Bambara, English and Songhay, with English subtitles. Not rated; for mature audiences. Sundance Cinemas (21+).

Perhaps most important, the film makes the rebel characters three-dimensional people who are not always in complete sync with their faith. One of the head rebels, for example, smokes in secret and has a crush on a married woman, not exactly acts of fundamentalist purity. Sissako leaves no doubt that these foreign invaders are misguided and cruel, but they come across as human, which makes their actions against the residents all the more devastating.

Shot in Mauritania, “Timbuktu” is based on real-life events in Mali and has been nominated for a best-foreign-film Oscar. It deserves it.