It’s common for local distributors to resort to some dubious tactics when promoting foreign films in Japan: Worthy arthouse flicks are routinely saddled with tawdry Japanese titles, or slushy trailers more befitting of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation. Yet there’s something particularly unfortunate about the marketing for Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” a sensitive drama that was nominated for best foreign-language film at this year’s Academy Awards.

“November 13: Simultaneous terror attacks in Paris, France,” screams the Japanese poster. “Rush-released: the last movie that all of us should watch in 2015.” Leaving aside the fact that the film’s release date was actually confirmed back in October, a few weeks before the attacks in the French capital, you have to wonder if anybody paused to question whether such a sales pitch might be in poor taste. There’s nothing like a terrorist atrocity to drum up market interest, right?

If you can forgive the ill-advised promotional campaign, “Timbuktu” certainly merits attention. At a time when the global conversation about radical Islam is tipping into outright hysteria, this rich, soulful drama offers some much-needed rebalancing. While deeply critical in its portrayal of Islamic jihad, it’s brave enough to remember that there’s some humanity on all sides of the conflict.

Timbuktu (Kinjirareta Utagoe)
Run Time 97 mins
Language Bambara, Tamasheq, Arabic, French, English (Subtitled in Japanese)
Opens now showing

The film takes place in the ancient Malian city during its 2012 occupation, when Tuareg rebels and foreign fighters imposed a violent form of Shariah law on the local population. Sissako, who spent much of his childhood in Mali, originally set out to make a documentary on the subject, and much of the screenplay — which he co-wrote with Kessen Tall, a Mali native — is based on real events.

The central story revolves around Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a guitar-playing Tuareg cowherd who shares a tent in the desert with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), and daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed). Living outside the city, they’re largely spared the attention of the Islamists, but when a fisherman kills one of the family’s cows, Kidane’s response shatters their precarious tranquility.

This tale is interspersed with scenes of life in Timbuktu, where militants roam the streets proclaiming religious edicts on megaphones — no smoking, no soccer, no loitering — and stalk the rooftops at night, listening out for anyone who dares violate their prohibition on playing music. Most of the inhabitants react to their presence with resignation, but there are small acts of resistance, too. A female fishmonger rejects demands that she wear gloves; a group of teenagers mimes a soccer match with an imaginary ball.

Sissako dwells on the minutiae of life under Islamist rule — there are multiple scenes of religious courts and debates over doctrine — but also permits himself the odd moment of lyricism. When an adulterous couple are stoned to death, the film cuts away quickly to a sequence of a jihadi performing an expressionistic dance, as if to atone for the violence. And there’s a scene of extraordinary emotional heft, when a woman being publicly flogged for singing and consorting with men (played by well-known Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara) bursts into anguished, defiant song.

It’s easy to imagine a Western filmmaker taking a more didactic approach. There’s some on-the-nose symbolism in the film’s opening scenes, in which militants take pot shots at a gazelle and pepper traditional African carvings with bullets, but while Sissako shows his cast of religious zealots as hypocritical and inept, he’s also careful to depict them as recognizably human: Abdelkerim (Abel Jafri) ducks behind a sand dune for a cigarette while nobody is looking; his French-speaking cohorts sit around debating about soccer players.

The events on which it’s based have already been largely forgotten, crowded out by other, more recent atrocities. However, “Timbuktu” is a film that should resonate for a long time to come.

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