Saturday, November 15, 2014

AFI Fest 2014: "Timbuktu"

Director: Abderrahmane Sissako
Runtime: 97 minutes

Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu has been described as a tapestry-like portrait of West Africa. A tapestry it may be, but it's one that the moths have eaten away at. Still, there's much to admire about Timbuktu, even though its attempts to shoehorn in a traditional narrative dilute the story's impact. Set in the titular city during occupation by Islamic extremists, Sissako's film is at least deserves praise for its intelligent, varied portrayal of modern African Islam. 

For roughly half of the 106 minute runtime, Timbuktu has only the loosest of plots, which is hardly a bad thing. When the film opens, Islamic militants have taken over the ancient trading city (beautifully photographed by Sofian El Fani), and are in the midst of rolling out their regressive policies. This means no music, no singing, no soccer, etc... And if you commit one of the worst of sins like adultery? Death by stoning. The militants may be rebels, but their mission is hardly one of liberation.

Rather than plunge the viewer into an unending string of horrible deeds, Sissako takes his time building up tensions between the townspeople and their imposing conquerors. At first, the militants only look like a minor nuisance, even with their heavy artillery. The citizens are openly defiant (within reason), not content to roll over and turn into lapdogs. The extremists may have the firepower, but they're also the ones who look out of place amid all of Timbuktu's beautiful stone structures. These isolated incidents flow together as if they were merely part of an observational documentary, rather than a drama. And then the plot kicks in.

The problem with Timbuktu's one traditional plot thread isn't that it's poorly executed, but simply that it doesn't fit in well with the free form pacing of the other scenes. After an accident lands Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) in jail, he falls victim to the extremists' newly-established sense of justice. Sissako tries to balance Kidane's story with his more objective story components, but neither side gets its proper due by the end. Timbuktu deserves credit for not bludgeoning the viewer with endless scenes of people suffering, but when it comes time for the extremists' actions to matter, they're only marginally affecting. There's a lot that can be done with the banality of evil angle, but Timbuktu often comes across as nothing more than banal.

And as beautiful as the film looks, other technical contributions aren't as consistent. A number of editing flubs jolt one out of the movie. Sissako and El Fani shoot Kidane's fateful encounter in a beautiful wide shot, but a series of jump cuts muck up the action and drain the scene of its hushed horror. Even more troublesome is the score, which underscores several important scenes with sappy, melodramatic strings and piano chords. It's as if Sissako doesn't trust his own attempts at loose objectivity. Timbuktu only becomes more stylistically at odds with itself as it goes on, never reconciling its dueling approaches to storytelling and structure. Whatever beauty resides at the heart of Sissako's cinematic tapestry diminishes as one pulls back to see how badly frayed the edges are.

Grade: C+

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