Timbuktu is set in 2012, just after Muslim extremists have moved into northern Mali en masse, immediately setting and enforcing rules that almost defy comprehension: They ban soccer and the playing of music; women must wear socks and gloves, in addition to all other proper head and body coverings; socializing between men and women that’s considered unwholesome is punishable by severe beating, or worse.

The Cannes poster for Two Days, One Night

What little I knew about Timbuktu beforehand made me fear it would be one of those movies that sets out to punish westerners with guilt over how easy their lives are. I was wrong, in the way that it’s so important to be wrong now and then. The core drama of Sissako’s film involves a goat and cattle herder (Ibrahim Ahmed), his loyal and astute wife (Toulou Kiki), and the couple’s 12-year-old daughter (Layla Walet Mohamed), as well as an orphan (Mehdi AG Mohamed) who has been taken in by the family. The group makes its home in a tent somewhere in the midst of a whiskery, deserted terrain; all of their neighbors, justifiably terrified by the new order, have left, but this solid little family vows to stay. Tragedy strikes in the form of an incident that is in no way morally justifiable, yet tragically understandable. Sissako (whose previous films include the 2006 Bamako and the 2002 Waiting for Happiness) shows a light touch whether he’s mapping the contours of tragedy or comedy -- and, astonishingly, considering the gravity of the subject matter, Timbuktu embraces both. Even with several screenings left to go, I doubt any film I’ve yet to see will match its gentle, slow-burning intensity, or its austere visual grace.

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