If Chicago's film culture were more sensible, Oliver Laxe's rapturously beautiful second feature, Mimosas
, wouldn't be playing at Facets Multimedia (where it screens for two more nights), but on every IMAX screen in the city. The chief pleasure of Laxe's film is how it makes use of monumental locations in Morocco, setting the story against the grand splendors of mountains and wide-open deserts. The story of Mimosas
is relatively simple, but the landscapes give it an epic sweep; they also make the story seem to exist outside of time, the eternal majesty of the setting overwhelming any momentary concerns. The imagery in Mimosas
will be familiar to anyone who saw Ben Rivers's experimental feature The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers
, which played in Chicago last year. That movie began as a moody making-of documentary about Mimosas
before branching off into its own strange territory, telling a nightmarish story in which Laxe gets kidnapped by desert nomads who force him to be their jester. (Come to think of it, The Sky Trembles
would look great on an IMAX screen too.) Mimosas
elucidates some of the more elusive ideas of Rivers's film while standing firmly on its own feet. It really should have screened in Chicago first, but considering how good both films are, this is a minor complaint.
Like The Sky Trembles
tells the story of a journey into the unknown. Near the beginning a dying sheikh summons a caravan of nomads to transport him across the mountains to a town called Sijilmasa. The sheikh believes he's dying, and he wants to be buried in this town. The way to Sijilmasa is largely uncharted, consisting at best of rough-hewn paths, and the desert is filled with bandits who are ready to attack travelers for their possessions. Ahmed and Saïd, the leaders of the caravan, accept the mission without complaint, but express concern about having to take on another traveler, a young man named Shakib who wants to assist in the holy rite of taking a sheikh to his burial site. Shakib is brought to the group by his employer, an older man who runs a taxi service in one of the towns, though Laxe doesn't divulge how that man learned of the caravan or their mission. This ambiguity serves the film's spiritual theme; it's as though the characters have been drawn together by a mystical force.
The film's spiritualism also plays out in its characterization of Shakib. This young man believes himself to be holy, praying constantly and telling everyone around him about religious history. Shakib often gets his facts wrong, though, and his faulty knowledge serves as a gentle running gag. He’s more of a holy fool than a saint, yet his willingness to take part in the dangerous rite makes him an asset to the caravan. As Mimosas
progresses, Shakib becomes a heroic figure, encouraging the group to continue on their journey in spite of the risks involved. His trust in God inspires him to move forward while the others express doubt; in this regard he is a true follower of the sheikh. (He's got to be the most lovable holy fool to appear on Chicago screens this season after Richard Gere in Joseph Cedar's Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer
Grasshopper Film, the U.S. distributor of Mimosas
, describes the movie as a western on their website, and while I doubt that Laxe had westerns on the brain when he was making the film, it does evoke numerous classics in that genre. The theme of religious devotion in the desert sometimes recalls John Ford's Wagon Master
, while Laxe's inspired use of locations to convey isolation and psychological fortitude recalls such Anthony Mann westerns as The Naked Spur
and The Far Country
. As in Mann's best work, the landscapes not only frame the drama, but help build characterization. Laxe defines the caravan members through their connection to and contention with the mountains and desert, the humans' camaraderie and determination serving as oases of feeling amid the uncaring terrain. In fact the principal conflicts of Mimosas
—the virtues of civilization versus uncivilized nature—feels vaguely American. In his seriousness regarding that conflict, Laxe has delivered something that feels closer in spirit to classic Hollywood releases than most contemporary Hollywood releases do.
differs from classic Hollywood cinema in its prevalence of wide shots and its emphasis on Islamic spiritualism. That thematic concern carries over to the very feel of the film, which often seems to exude a spiritual force. The landscapes convey the powerful mystery of existence, which the characters respect through their religious devotion. Moreover, Laxe renders modern culture mysterious through his use of ambient music and narrative ellipses. As in Rivers's companion film, some of the most powerful shots of Mimosas
are of taxicabs driving through a desert—a compelling image of civilization imposed on a landscape that seems to reject the presence of humans. The triumph of Laxe's film is that it inspires a sense of awe with regards to nature and civilization alike.