Every year, the start of the “Summer Movie Season” seems to creep closer and closer to the beginning of the year. Studios try to turn anything that evokes nostalgia for an ardent group of fans into an “expanded cinematic universe.” Even studios once lauded for their originality get infected with sequel-itis and “bank” on established “properties” instead of sponsoring creativity, the language of “banking” and “properties” itself confessing the true nature of their “enterprise.” There is an element to popular cinema that is more like real estate investment than artistic expression. In all this capitalistic fog, it’s easy to lose sight of cinema’s real power – its ability to render worlds with a vibrancy and veracity unparalleled in all other human endeavors.
Timbuktu, writer/director Abderrahmane Sissako’s Oscar nominated Mauritanian film that premiered in 2014 but is just now in its US theatrical run, is a revelation, an apocalypse, a rending of the veil, a strong wind that disperses the haze and exposes this essential nature, the potent potentiality of cinema. If you see it, Timbuktu might be the one True Cinematic Experience you have this year. Compared to it, everything I’ve seen in a theater since I saw The Tree of Life is cut product.
Timbuktu features a group of Muslim women and men in the Malian, titular city at odds over the application of Islamic law in their lives. This is their story, their prayer, and we are simply the humble viewers of their film. In the film, a radical group has taken over Timbuktu and is imposing their interpretation of the law on everyone. Timbuktu presents these impositions as if they are as ridiculous and arbitrary as when Rocket Raccoon has Star Lord obtain the invalid prisoner’s prosthetic leg in Guardians of the Galaxy.
However, Timbuktu doesn’t play the arbitrary cruelty for laughs, because the consequences of these prohibitions are devastating for the community, squelching out all external expressions of inner life, forcing the citizenry to adopt daringly absurd counter-practices, and costing some people their lives. The stand-out sequence in this film is one in which a group of young men play soccer without a soccer ball. The scene is one of the most subversively poetic works of art I have ever seen, bringing to life the inanity of the occupiers’ rules, the resiliancy of the occupied people, the joy that survives and sustains amidst trial, and the desperate need for change. It is just one of many similarly elegiac sequences in this exquisitely crafted film.
In Romans 8, Paul writes that when we don’t know what to pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. Paul writes the Spirit “groans wordlessly” on our behalf. Timbuktu is this kind of wordless groaning. It is the cry of a group of people at odds with themselves and desperate for God to save them. Their God isn’t Christ, but their God is the “God of Abraham.” What that means theologically is up for debate. I’m not sure myself, but I am sure that my God, the Christian God, loves them just as God loved Hagar and her son Ismael and just as God loves the whole world. I believe that God longs to be reconciled to all people. I pray God hears their prayers. I pray you see Timbuktu. It will open your eyes.