Timbuktu ★★★★½

I'm tempted to give Timbuktu 5 stars, but I don't like doing that after just one viewing. My enthusiasm may be compromised by the timeliness of this film. We need intimate portraits of those faithful to Islam, and those unfaithful to it. We need them right now. And here we have one. I'm grateful.

Does that mean it's a masterpiece? This is my first experience with Sissako. I'm moved by the narrative, the performances, the patience, the complexity, and the beauty. I'm not sure I see Sissako as a director who composes meaningful images so much as he is a storyteller who knows how to film a good story. I'd like to see more visual poetry on the screen. I need to think this over and read some more. I need more time.

Having said that, here is what the film caused me to ponder:

When any religious law ceases to be a way of showing us that we all, falling short of righteousness, need God's love and mercy...

When any religious law is bent to stifle the playful, free, and creative (and thus human) expression of love and worship...

When any religious law ceases to be a design that helps human beings support one another in equality and love...

When any religious law seeks to concentrate power in the hands of a few, instead of investing power in service of those who lack power...

When any religious law becomes a system that people can manipulate, exploit, and revise to their own advantage...

... then that law no longer has anything to do with God. (That is to say, with Love.) Unjust religious law, or good religious law that is manipulated and abused, divides instead of uniting, kills community instead of building it, diminishes the humanity of those in power, and makes saints out of the oppressed for what they suffer.

In this film, the aging Muslim leader who speaks knowledgeably about the desire for peace, pleading on behalf of those who suffer injustice, clearly has roots running deep into faith. Those who oppose him, quoting the same sacred texts, are clearly self-interested and narrow-minded. They cherry-pick verses that will support their cause, disregarding the fuller interpretation of the text.

This is a very specific film about specific cultures clashing in a specific time and place. But it looks so much like what happens in any religion or tradition — even the one in which I find the meaning and richness and joys of my life. I have seen behaviors like those of the violent extremists in this film among Christians. Christianity, like Islam, is always full of professing followers of Christ who ignore anything in Christ's teaching and example that is inconvenient for their agenda. Many are prone to seizing the law that was given for human flourishing and then bending it to exalt and protect themselves. They forget that Christ presented himself as the fullest revelation of the law — and he did that by abdicating conventional forms of power, investing himself in service of the poor, the marginalized, the outcasts.

The fruits of the Spirit, the Bible says, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Where we see these things cultivating one another, Love is alive. And God is Love. In that sense, we can see God at work in this narrative: He is there in the love a family, in the resistance to forces that divide, in the language of those who speak truth in love, in the joy of the music, in the grace of the children.

Thus, I must object to those who just throw up their hands and say "The world would be better off without religion." Any signs, any vocabulary, any code — "secular" or "religious" (if you believe those things are exclusive, which I don't) — can be distorted and subverted for evil purposes. Love is the question that must be posed to any belief to test its quality; and love is the answer that question demands.

Timbuktu stands out among films about Islam and Islamic extremism by making everyone involved — traditionalist and extremist, irreligious and religious, loving families and arrogant tyrants — human, rather than caricatures. When an audience is persuaded of a character's humanity, the audience will connect with that character — whatever their culture, class, or gender. We identify with humans who suffer and with humans who abuse power. Thus, in its human specificity, Timbuktu becomes more relatable, and less likely to be judged simplistically, than so many films about our age.

We all, wherever we live, whatever religion we claim or deny, find ourselves shaken by the same warring impulses: within religions, organizations, communities, families, marriages, and even within our individual hearts. Thus, I think Timbuktu is a great film for everybody — so long as it is watched attentively and discussed.