Saturday, January 24, 2015

Best Foreign Language Film nominee (and maybe winner?) -- Abderrahmane Sissako's TIMBUKTU

TrustMovies hasn't yet seen Estonia's Tangerines nor Argentina's Wild Tales, but of the three BFLF Oscar nominees he has seen -- including the beautifully photographed but terribly obvious Ida and the tell-us-again-how-corrupt-and-bullying-modern-Russia can-be Leviathan -- Mauritania's small-scale but gorgeous and engrossing TIMBUKTU by veteran director Abderrahmane Sissako is by far the best. It shows us things we have not previously seen, especially what the incursion of Islam fundamentalists into a town in Africa means to its inhabitants (rather than what this kind of fundamentalism might do to our own western sensibility), and it does this in a manner that is thought-provoking, comic, sad and, yes, frustrating. This film is also remarkably beautiful to watch.

Mr. Sissako, shown at left, is able to weave several stories together loosely but mindfully, so that we follow both the "soldiers of god" and the inhabitants they seek to control. We see the lives of these people as they were but may be no more, and view the innate beauty of both place and person, while also noticing some of the flaws that even the dearest of the inhabi-tants possess. There is no doubt with whom the filmmaker sympathizes but he's too smart a guy to pretend that one side is perfect and the other perfectly awful. He allows us to view and even under-stand every character's viewpoint -- as ridiculous as this sometimes can be.

In the opening scene what looks to me like a gazelle races gracefully across the African plain pursued by soldiers shooting at it in an open jeep. We fear for that gazelle, but then a commanding voice says, "Don't kill it, just tire it out." (Isn't this the goal of fundamentalism?) And then we meet various characters at work and at leisure -- both of which will very soon change by becoming "against god" and therefore suddenly illegal.

A man who owns some cattle relaxes in a tent with wife and daughter. When he must leave for awhile, one of those soldiers drives up and clearly has intentions toward the wife. "Why do you only come here when my husband is gone?" she asks, and he is shamed into leaving.

In the craziest/silliest bit of religious nonsense, a woman selling fish is told she must wear gloves, while men must roll up their pant-legs. A mosque is visited while celebrants are at prayer, and the soldiers are reminded that they are in a house of god. Of course, they know this and so back off -- at least for a bit.

But then, in Sissako's boldest and smartest movie, a collision occurs that the soldiers have nothing to do with. While slaking their thirst in the river, the cattle of our very contented fellow break into the nets of a local fisherman, who has previously warned the young boy who tends those cattle. A spear is thrown and suddenly everything changes.

More than anything else, Timbuktu is about justice -- and its quicksilver elusivity. It is also about how we try so hard to get around whatever stands in the way of what we imagine to be that justice, whether this means playing football, which has now been banned, with an imaginary ball, or singing songs that may possibly squeak by because they have a religious meaning, after music, too, has been outlawed.

If I'm not mistaken, I believe I noticed in the thank-you's a nod to Elia Suleiman. This shouldn't be surprising, as the two filmmakers have subtlety, style and an inquiring mind in common. Both hope to understand conflicting viewpoints while already understanding how difficult this can be.

But it is the attempt that counts -- particularly when that attempt is so utterly beautiful to view and finally so sorrowful to contemplate. Sissako's finale is a continuous piece of filmmaking that holds you breathless -- until it suddenly leaves you lost in media res.

Timbuktu -- from Cohen Media Group, running just 97 vital minutes and spoken in five different languages, including English (with subtitles when not) -- opens this coming Wednesday, January 28, in New York City (at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema) and in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) on Friday, January 30, and then at other Laemmle theaters in the weeks following.

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