Winner of the Silver Hugo for Best Director
Screens at CIFF: 10/15 & 10/16
World premiere: 15 May, 2014, Cannes International Film Festival

There is a heightened irony at the heart of Timbuktu that is completely obvious, and which fuels the rage that drives every moment of Abderrahmane Sissako's first feature in eight years, following the great and underseen Bamako: that forcing religious piety onto a population is a one-way ticket to creating Hell on Earth. And thus it is that one of the most visually beautiful films of 2014 (cinematographer Sofiane El Fani has made every single frame positively vibrate with precise compositions, lighting, and use of color) tells one of the most severe, ghastly stories. It creates a totally disorienting clash of sensations, like watching Terrence Malick make a torture porno: how can such flawlessly beauty harbor such casual, unforced cruelty? The film's signature moment is one breathtaking image of a river at sunset, an extravagant wide shot that lingers and lasts and sinks into your eyes with grandeur, both natural and cinematic. And what occurs in this long, long shot? A character we've come to like and respect as a decent man in an indecent world kills a man. Not deliberately nor in malice, but that's of little matter once the deed is done.

The film takes place in Mali (it was shot in Mauritania), during the 2012 rebellions and coups and all manner of dismal conflicts that put a fundamentalist Muslim party in control of the north of the country, instituting sharia law over the population under its control. For our purposes, that mostly refers to the city of Timbuktu, an ethnic polyglot whose openness makes it a prime target for fundamentalist ire; over the objections of the local imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif), the jihadists wage a kind of urban war against anything that exists outside of their narrowly-defined rules of propriety and morality: artists, athletes, and people who just want to enjoy the outside air despite being women, are all taken down in the raging sectarian violence. Meanwhile, far outside the city, a domestic drama plays out quietly: nomadic cattle rancher Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), of the Tuareg people, his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), their daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and adopted ward Issan (Mehdi A.G. Mohamed) do their very best to live peaceably in their isolation, but even in the earliest moments we see them, there are encroaching threats from the jihad's reign of terror, and Kidane's prideful refusal to move, against Satima's urgent counsel, is plainly incapable of doing much other than to hasten his and his family's fate.

For Sissako, one of the great humanists presently at work in world cinema, the obvious approach to depict this misery and nastiness was through great restraint that implies the worst without being remotely exploitative or undignified to the suffering of those who ended up on the bad side of the jihadists. Case in point: one of the main events that triggered the director's decision to make this film was when he witnessed footage of the stoning of an unmarried couple, buried up to their necks before being executed. That event is re-created in Timbuktu, and it is grueling and horrifying, but not because it is grotesque and explicit. In fact, by refusing to give the audience any sort of release along those lines, the sequence - which takes place in a wide shot and cuts short long before things get too violent - is even more distressing and brutal, since it is so painfully objective and matter-of-fact. The complex, geometrically pleasing compositions remain in this moments of appalling violence; in refusing to sensationalise the acts, the film avoids reducing them to the level of entertainment, but instead demands that we consider them as part of the same flow of life that can produce intimacy and beauty. And that is the worst thing of all.

It is quite impossible to consider Timbuktu to be anything but a great work of art, with its intensely moral worldview and the complicated, hugely rewarding relationship between its beautiful images and its bottomless awareness of human misery. And it also represents an interesting turn in the director's career, though one about which it is easy to be leery: it's the most explicitly "art housey" of his movies so far, and in this case, that means terrific things: marrying the hallmarks of great African cinema (the strong use of contrasting colors as a storytelling and character-building element; terrific sense of humans as a function of physical place) with European art cinema (the narrative structure, the way the politics are expressed ironically). But it also feels far more conventional than the other Sissako I've seen, and I'd hate to think of him ceding the unique personality that led to Bamako and Waiting for Happiness, films that absolutely could not ever have been made in Europe. That's the pessimistic outlook, of course; nothing in Timbuktu gives us any cause to fear that the director is compromising his visions in the slightest, only augmenting them with slightly more stock-issue aesthetic choices. It's still one of 2014's very best films, and that's what matters most of all.