Editor’s Notes: The Fisher King and Timbuktu are out on their respective formats June 23rd.
The Fisher King
The Fisher King (The Criterion Collection), directed by Terry Gilliam, focuses on cynical disc jockey Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), whose signature style is making fun of the frustrations and misery of his callers. When one of his rants against the yuppies who frequent a particular bar leads to a frequent caller going to the bar and opening fire, randomly killing several patrons, Jack’s life takes a dark turn into emotional despair. He abandons radio for a life as a recluse and appears disconnected from humanity. At this point, he meets a eccentric homeless man (Robin Williams), who’s lost his mind after experiencing a personal tragedy.
Though both Bridges and Williams turn in outstanding performances, it is Williams who shines brighter. The role lends itself to flamboyance and excessive exaggeration, two of Williams’ strong points. Apart form a showcase portrayal, however, Williams inhabits the character and digs deep to expose the hurt and torture that has spiraled him down a bleak, sad path.
Director Gilliam draws a fantasy element into the earthbound story of Jack’s guilt at feeling responsible for inspiring an act of mass murder. The director taps heavily into Williams’ ability to create humor and prevents the picture from being overly cerebral. We respond to Williams first, his character second. Through his performance, he makes an oddball character accessible and sympathetic.
Timbuktu (Cohen Media) is a film about hypocrisy, intolerance, survival under dire circumstances, and brutality. Director Abderrahmane Sissako blends these elements with the family of goat and cattle herders, local musicians, fishermen, and imams. These individuals are all suddenly forced to obey Shariah laws that prohibit music, the playing of football, sitting in front of one’s home, or being in a room with anyone of the opposite sex (other than family). There is also a strict dress code imposed.
Initially immune to these stringent laws are Kidane, Satima and their daughter, Toya. Because they live in a tent in the desert far from the city of the film’s title, they go on with their lives harmoniously. The latest topic of family discussion involves whether Kidane will give the young man who tends his herd a cow of his own. This relatively peaceful, gentle look at day-to-day family life contrasts dramatically with the harsh laws that are instituted in the name of religion. The mission to suppress the populace with these rules is an excuse for young men, armed with machine guns, to bully the townsfolk and use violence to keep them in line. After a tragic accident, Kidane and family find themselves in direct conflict with the fundamentalists.
Director Sissako presents a vivid portrait of the cruelty and absurdity of fundamentalist regimes. Many of the laws they set down are broken by the jihadists themselves in the name of expediency. Power is the drug that fuels these men who, in another setting, would be simple thugs. The movie is especially effective in showing how the lives of decent people can be disrupted by fascism in the guise of religion.
The sole Blu-ray feature is an interview with the director. The film is in French, Arabic, and English, with English subtitles.
For over 25 years, I was the Film and Home Entertainment Reviewer for "The Villadom TIMES," a New Jersey weekly newspaper, and have written for several other publications. I developed and taught a Film Studies program for two New York City high schools that included Film History, Horror/Fantasy, and Film Making.