“The Bible reveals that fraternity has always been a fraternity of blood,” states Malian director Cheick Oumar Sissoko, and his magnificent 1999 film of desert landscapes and fratricidal warfare, dedicated “to all who make peace,” implies parallels with today’s ethnic conflicts. Said to be the first African film with a biblical source, it adapts the story of Jacob, Esau, and Hamor in Genesis 23-38, setting it in a harsh, dry landscape of dusty temporary encampments. The authentic African locale may look strange to Westerners schooled in Hollywood biblical epics, but it gives everything in the film an elemental quality: walking, laundering, circumcision, and murder all seem like primal acts performed by some of Noah’s earliest descendants and handed down to us only from there. Characters often declaim their lines as if from a stage rather than speaking to each other, an effect found in other African films that seems especially appropriate to Genesis. At times Sissoko rotates his camera around a single figure, which not only emphasizes that character but also stretches the background around him panoramically. Like John Ford he frequently frames his actors against a distant and strikingly shaped mountain, but their figures never seem as separated from the land as Ford’s. Rather, they appear as manifestations of it, the tan shades of their clothes and horses echoing the browns of the desert–as if they’ve grown out of it. More than any other biblical film I’ve seen (including Rossellini’s great The Messiah), this one evokes those ancient times when there were still “giants in the earth.” Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, March 25, 8:00, and Thursday, March 30, 6:00, 312-443-3737.

–Fred Camper