Things move slowly in Timbuktu. There is a deliberation made apparent in the daily lives centered on sand and heat in this film and exacerbated by an oppressive ISIL-like regime that forbids the Mali townspeople anything bordering on pleasure: music, cigarettes, alcohol (in an almost comic scene, an official declares adultery off-limits during the holy month). These castigations seem trivial in the sensuous sunbaked town. Then we witness exactly how couples are punished for illicit love. Everything swirls in the desert until it crashes.
Most of Abderrahmane Sissako’s fever-dream film focuses on a family—Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri) and Satima (Toulou Kiki), who herd cows and live in a tent, whiling away long hours of heat lost in deep philosophical appreciation of each other and their precious daughter. They are aware, though, that fate can close on them. Many of their neighbors have left. Other people’s stories crosscut, and the raw nerve of humanity keeps meeting the edge of sharia. A sense of dread builds like daylight heat.
This is a new voice in world cinema, but it’s not profound so much as it is suggestive. Sissako almost humanizes the regime, but he also stands far back from an important murder scene as if some indifferent God were watching. It’s dazzling but ultimately too close to timidity for a theme that has set the world on fire in recent months. It makes us feel, but under the blazing sun, we feel a little too burnt away to think.