CANNES – It is the very nature of film festival scheduling to turn up odd juxtapositions, but even by the usual standards, the first two premieres of this year's Cannes Film Festival couldn't have been more gauchely incompatible. As if “Grace of Monaco's” fretting over the political liberties of a gilded tax-haven state weren't silly enough in isolation, its vapidity only intensifies when considered back-to-back with Abderrahmane Sissako's “Timbuktu” — a breathing, bleeding response to a genuine human rights crisis that doesn't view tragedy as a zone exempt from beauty or humor. You'd probably have guessed that between the two films, “Timbuktu” would be the one containing more human suffering; less obvious was that it'd feature rather more joy too.
Mauritanian-born, Mali-raised director Sissako is perhaps best known to arthouse audiences for “Bamako,” an impassioned essay film of sorts that parsed Africa's social and economic imbalances with elegant complexity, but also a certain wearing instructiveness. “Timbuktu,” despite a title that makes it sound a direct companion piece to its predecessor, is something else.
Surveying the regime of Jihadist extremism that has swept through Mali to violent effect, it's a stark, sense-driven cri de coeur that holds on tightly to its anger amid its ecstatic panoply of sound and image. Better yet, it's a protest film as interested in its perpetrators as in its victims, studying every passing face for feeling; there's enough ambivalence on many of them to remind us how prejudice tends to be larger than its practitioners. Among its many virtues, “Timbuktu” is a rare and welcome portrait of opposing identities in Islam, a religion internally undermined by bad faith.
In the dust-hive city of Timbuktu, where a peaceable population is held under the gun(s) of far-right Muslims from outside the country, the biggest violations begin with their denying the smallest liberties. The megaphone monotone of irrational rules issued at a constant pace by the new overlords (no music, no football, no inter-gender fraternizing, and so on) becomes an oppressive hum on the film's soundtrack, interrupted by gunfire and anguished cries when any one of these arbitrary directives is broken. Eighty lashes for the satin-skinned girl whose only crime was to sing a folk song in an extraordinary honeydew voice; death by stoning for the young lovers whose partnership didn't extend to formal marriage.
“Timbuktu” opens on the image of a gazelle dashing for its life amid a spray of bullets, as its unseen attackers announce their plans to run it into ragged submission; the city's human population, it seems, is treated no differently. It's a different instance of animal abuse that kick's the film's sliding, non-linear narrative into touch after an opaque introduction. Cattle herder Kidane (the gracefully stoic Ibrahim Ahmed) lives a bare-bones desert existence with his wife (Toulou Kili) and daughter — their home an open tent, their cellphone an incongruous lifeline.
Rejecting the conservative ascetism of the new order, Kidane is sufficiently in thrall to the modern world to wittily name his favorite cow GPS — whose death at the hands of a neighboring fisherman prompts a reckless act of revenge on the herdsman's part. (A sustained, river-spanning long shot that details the precise outcome of their confrontation is an extraordinary formal coup for Sissako and “Blue is the Warmest Color” cinematographer Sofiane El Fani.) When Kidane is caught and sentenced in a makeshift Jihadist court that, ironically enough, has few rules in place for actual crimes, the judge isn't unsympathetic. He manages to hide that fact in translation, however, as the “trial” proceeds in an unproductive tangle of tongues — the new government is scarcely equipped to communicate with its subjects, much less dictate to them.
“Timbuktu” might sound more despairing than it really is: Sissako's fury may be serenely controlled, but he finds pockets of light and air in both communities. One delightful sequence tracks a football match played entirely without the forbidden football: players darting and weaving as if nothing were missing, their fluorescent jerseys popping against the endless expanse of oatmeal sand. Elsewhere, one of the Jihadis performs a kind of one-man ballet that suggests some capacity for regret and correction.
Beauty, Sissako implies, will endure, whether it's in the defiant voice of a woman singing as she is whipped, or even the ornate geometry of handmade fishing nets reflected in the water. Such sensuality risks making the film an overly mannered exercise, an adornment of atrocity, but that's far from the final effect. Rather, it's the brightest details that seem least destructible as “Timbuktu's” imprecisely linked stories gradually tighten into a city of sorrow.