Movie Review: Timbuktu shades from wry comedy to deep horror

Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is Bertolt Brecht at the edge of the Sahara Desert, dialectical and enigmatic, full of subverted tensions and allegorical characters who are complicated by contradiction and shading—the kind of mature polemical filmmaking that can’t help but seem singular, because few political-issue-type directors try it, and even fewer get it right.

On the most basic, parable-like level, it’s about a Muslim community being forcibly taken over by jihadist militants, and about a local cowherd being tried for accidentally killing a man in an argument. Sissako’s plotting is pure art theater—the opening images of local folk art being destroyed for target practice play as a wordless direct-address prologue—but his plunked-down, long-take style is almost documentary in the way it frames people talking, singing, and going about their business. As in his previous feature, Bamako, this creates internal conflict between allegory and reality …

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