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 Michael Bergeron
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In a land where playing music, smoking or playing football are offenses and punished by public flogging what happens when someone commits murder? At one point in Timbuktu we watch youths play an imaginary game of soccer. There is no ball; they run back and forth as if they are kicking something. One player positions the imaginary ball to kick a penalty goal but the action stops when an animal walks across their field of play. The camera lingers slowly on the moment.

Timbuktu is a French-Mauritanian movie production that dramatically shows life in Mali under harsh Islamic (ISIL) rule. Mauritania is west of Mali in Africa. The action unfolds mostly in Arabic, Bambara, Tuareg, and a few times in English. There are so many tribal languages that English is a common tongue. On some levels the film seems set in another century what with people living in tents and making a living fishing and herding. Yet Timbuktu is also in the present since cell phones and automatic weapons are everywhere.

Timbuktu benefits from its slow almost mesmerizing pace that observes the calm of the desert and the peaceful lives of its denizens. It’s this tranquil existence that is jolted by the barbaric practices of the local officials. Plenty of social commentary on display in this entry for the recent best foreign film Oscar. Timbuktu currently unwinds at the Sundance Cinemas Houston.

— Michael Bergeron