Life under jihad: ‘Timbuktu’ is a timely story of struggle

Timbuktu looks at life under sharia law in Mali.

Three stars

Timbuktu Hichem Yacoubi, Abel Jafri, Toulou Kiki. Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.

The regular horrific news emanating from territories invaded by ISIS gives the Oscar-nominated Timbuktu, with its portrait of life under sharia law in Mali, an extra dose of topical interest. (It premiered almost exactly a year ago, at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.) Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, one of Africa’s most acclaimed filmmakers, the film cuts back and forth among several different narratives, with their commonality being people’s struggle to maintain their lifestyles and traditions in the face of repressive strictures imposed by newly arrived Islamic jihadists.

To his credit, Sissako concentrates as much on beauty as he does on oppression. The jihadists immediately outlaw all music, for example, and a woman who defies this edict gets 80 lashes. But her whipping is ultimately less affecting than is the lazy, gentle scene in which she sings on her own couch, accompanied by friends playing equally forbidden instruments. Eventually, however, as dissidents are gunned down and adulterers get buried up to their necks and stoned, Timbuktu comes to resemble a typical social-justice tract. At that point, it becomes politically worthy and dramatically tedious, as such cinematic wake-up calls usually do.

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