Timbuktu ★★★★½

It’s not easy to tell a story about the real-world effects of Islamic fundamentalism that also feels patiently observational, but that’s the tricky balance Abderrahmane Sissako achieves in this Academy Award Foreign Language nominee, set in the titular city in Mali shortly after the takeover by a jihadist militia in 2012. The narrative is largely episodic—the protagonist, to the extent that there is one, is a nomadic herdsman named Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) facing a life-or-death situation after a quarrel over a dead cow—and concerned more with the overall feel of the city than with any single plot thread. But it’s terrific at capturing a place under siege—with troops searching for the source of secular music, or a beautifully pantomimed soccer game made necessary by the banning of the sport—while still finding the humanity in the jihadists’ convictions, and even their surreptitious breaking of their own rules. At only 96 minutes, it still feels like it has an epic scope, providing a fascinating, sometimes violent portrait of a place where flawed humans are convinced they can institute God’s law on earth.