PARIS — The expansion of jihadism these past 15 years puts our very concept of humanity at risk. We have, as such, long awaited the film that would artistically assess — and not only on sociological, political or spectacular levels — this extreme phenomenon. What was missing was a work that would complete the challenge of making something that shows so little concern for humanity exist as an aesthetic subject.

The old dilemma of art face-to-face with monstrosity. How should it be approached without betraying the subject, or betraying oneself? How should it be relayed without toning it down? Few works have managed to do so, whatever the name behind which the crime hides itself in history: law in Sophocles’ Antigone, war in Goya’s The Disasters of War or Picasso’s Guernica, genocide in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah or Rithy Panh’s S-21, humiliation in Elia Suleiman’s Chronicle of a Disappearance.

This great film on the horror of jihad has now come to our screens with Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako. The director, who was born in Mauritania and raised in Mali, learned cinema in the Soviet Union. Now living in Paris, Sissako has only produced four full-length movies — Life on Earth (1998), Waiting for Happiness (2002), Bamako (2006) and Timbuktu (2014) — in a career that started in 1989.

When one knows how hugely talented he is, such a parsimonious list can be enraging. The positive side is that each one of his films is the condensed result of a long maturation that unforgettably resonates in one’s mind. This is due to the way Sissako films the world, tying pictures and stories together in a crystal-clear lace stretched above the abyss. A harrowing force of cinema, fragile but strong: stunning beauty, delicate but strong.

Such is Timbuktu, which, in addition to an exceptional artistic quality that earned it a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards, finds new, gruesome resonance given current world events.

Cruelty and humor

We are in Timbuktu, Mali. In all likelihood, the action takes place between the summer of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, a period during which a coalition of Salafist groups (al-Qaeda in the Magreb, Ansar Dine and others) took over northern Mali and, as a result, the "pearl of the desert," Timbuktu. These forces replaced the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), the Tuareg insurgency that took over the city in April, and were themselves ousted by the French and Malian military in January 2013.

These few months allowed the radical Islamists to impose Sharia law, burn down mausoleums and precious manuscripts, spread terror and engage in the cruelest acts of violence in the name of faith.

The director shows us this state of emergency through two parallel lines that eventually cross each other, with tragic consequences. There is the control of the Islamists over the city, like a noose getting tighter. The fate of a bright Tuareg family living on its outskirts, where the father is sentenced to death for having accidentally killed a fisherman. And that’s it. The rest is nothing but intelligence and beauty. Intelligence in the representation of the persecutors, less demonized (which would mean deified) than they are re-humanized. Ludicrous, cynical, hypocrite. Deaf and blind to the evil they are committing.

"Timbuktu" director Abderrahmane Sissako — Photo: Festival de Cine Africano de Córdoba

Fanaticism comes in as a terrifying register of idiocy; and idiocy as an inexhaustible generator of humor: a former Belgian rapper turning all his attempts at propaganda videos into jokes, the man with the megaphone going around town listing the many prohibited acts so often that he doesn’t know what to forbid anymore, the religious man smoking in secret, the group of French jihadists arguing over soccer stars Zidane and Messi.

But, with humor, the creeping horror goes for the jugular when a young woman is flogged until she bleeds because she was caught singing, and an innocent father is killed with a public sense of duty.

Faced with this cesspit of idiocy and terror, the beauty of those who are crushed and resist with their minds shines forth: Kidane and Satima, this stunningly beautiful and graceful Tuareg couple, looking at their oppressors with their heads high; this voodoo doll insulting the spoilsports; the teenagers playing soccer without a ball; the imam who bravely reminds people of Islam’s values of tolerance.

The director will likely be reproached for what can seem like Manichaeism. The aesthetic level of the film covers its moral dimension: The persecutors are loathsome because they can do nothing else but insult and destroy the beauty of the world. The victims are beautiful because they are the living and personified protest against this deliberate, undoubtedly desperate, annihilation of life.