Life is good for Kidane and his wife and daughteruntil jihadis seize the nearby burg, in the film Timbuktu which is nominated for an Oscar

When I was a wee lad, my grandfather would describe taking a long journey as ‘going to Timbuktu’. I had no idea where Timbuktu was – in fact, I didn’t realize it was a real place – but I can remember thinking that it was an awfully funny name. Every time Grandpa said Timbuktu, he got a chuckle out of little me.

It wasn’t until many years later, of course, that I discovered that Timbuktu was real — a city in the West African nation of Mali (or in Grandpa’s day, French Sudan). And now it has its own eponymous film: the Academy Award-nominated Timbuktu opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 13.

Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino) lives in a tent outside the city proper, where he and his family raise cattle for a living. The pride of his herd is a cow named GPS, who Kidane intends to gift to adopted son Issan (Mehdi Mohamed) when the boy reaches manhood. (The cow’s unusual name is never explained by director Abderrehmane Sissako’s screenplay – or perhaps this detail was lost during the subtitling process.)

Life has been good for Kidane, wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and daughter Toya (Layla Waled Mohamed), but when jihadis seize the nearby burg (as they actually did in 2012) their malign influence soon begins to extend beyond the city limits. The neighbors pack up and leave, but Kidane chooses to remain behind and ride out the storm.

While the jihadis impose their strict rules in town (rules which they themselves flout), Kidane continues to play music and enjoy life, while Satima remains resolutely uncovered. When GPS strays into a fisherman’s nets, however, problems develop from an unexpected direction, leading to tragic results for all concerned.

Shot in the neighboring republic of Mauritania – presumably a safer location for filming – Timbuktu avoids Hollywood hyperbole or sensation in its depiction of mujahideen. Their leader, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri), is an Arabic-speaking outsider who doesn’t understand the local ways or language and smokes when no one is looking.

Unswervingly devout and principled he is not, and neither are his men, who despite announcing that music is forbidden and that women must wear gloves at all times still have time to compare the relative merits of Barcelona and Real Madrid football clubs. It’s only when sharia courts begin convening that things really turn nasty.

Through the character of a local imam, Timbuktu makes it clear that the holy warriors are on extremely shaky theological ground. Their intrusion into his mosque during prayers earns them a measured but sharp rebuke, and their opinions on marriage result in a lengthy explanation of why they’re wrong – and why their definition of jihad is a false one. Sadly, it makes no difference to the mujahideen.

Benefiting immensely from a lovely, subtle and unobtrusive score from Amin Bouhafa, Timbuktu is probably not going to win the big prize on Feb. 22. The Academy will probably choose to stick its finger in Vladimir Putin’s eye and choose Russia’s Leviathan – but this is certainly a film of beauty and great value. Fair warning, though: there are some moments of cruelty that may briefly discomfit viewers.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

Want to know what else is going on in Berkeley and nearby? Visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events — the calendar if self-serve and free.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...