Timbuktu

In filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako’s view, the eponymous Malian city barely looks like a city at all. It’s all outskirts, a metaphorical ghost town with the fresh corpse of civilization rotting somewhere just offscreen. The place is increasingly in thrall to Islamic fundamentalism, with a Sharia mandate to ban anything fun under threat of barbaric punishment. It’s a place of men with guns instead of minds, and women forced to wear socks and gloves even in the sweltering heat, even when being beaten in public for some other preposterous offense. A place where multilingual communication breakdowns take on tragic proportions, including a narratively central one involving a simple herdsman, his wife, their preteen daughter, and a cow with the sly nickname “GPS.” Sissako’s vignettes are peppered here and there with casual yet satirically exact gestures: A herd of young men and boys mime a soccer game, sans ball, because actual soccer is forbidden; an amateur militant video goes afoul when its star, a young former rapper, can’t convincingly renounce his past as a life of sin; most drolly, a jihadi peers gloomily at a suggestive bush on an undulating sandhill, then mows it down with his rifle in a sad Freudian huff. But Sissako doesn’t get trapped in mockery, and it says a lot that a tone of ruefulness prevails. We begin to understand what makes Malian blues bands so soulful and mesmerizingly good. For starters, in a place like this, they get 40 lashes for playing music at all, and 40 more just for being together in a room.