Time seems to have inverted: last year saw the release of British artist Ben Rivers’ The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, a feature film that appears to be a behind-the-scenes record of the production of Spanish director Oliver Laxe’s second film, Mimosas, in Morocco. But soon The Sky Trembles turns into something else, its patchwork-colored landscapes drawing Laxe off his own film set and on a stripped-down journey through the desert. Kidnapped and covered in tin armor, Laxe goes through an allegorical rite of passage inspired by the writing of Paul Bowles and reminiscent of how, in his feature debut, 2010’s marvelous You Are All Captains, the young director is also replaced from his own film and which seems to get along just fine without him.
This year we finally see Mimosas, the film whose production we spied in The Sky Trembles. Ben Rivers’ unorthodox docu-fiction hybrid is now no longer its own film, but a kind of cinematic prediction that presaged, foresaw and calls forth Mimosas. Laxe’s new film, much-anticipated after the lyrical and tenderly self-aware mixed-form of his debut, is not so different from that film which was made inside it, a film that, in a simple but strange fact, predates it. Mimosas, too, is a desert allegory; and it, too, folds two forms indistinguishably within itself. First, set some indeterminate time in the past, we see a band of travelers in the Moroccan desert trying to cross from one place to another, led by a sheikh and taking along with them two scoundrels. En route the sheikh dies, and while most of the caravan dissolves, the two men, previously contemplating robbing the group, have a change of heart and decide to take his body on an arduous path in an attempt to bury the man in its rightful home.
The scoundrels' path quickly meets Mimosas’s second thread, following a third man (Shakib Ben Omar, who replaced Laxe as a director in You Are All Captains), introduced in modern times as an incompetent miscreant trying to secure a gig as a taxi driver and spouting religious dogma. He is given a job not as a cabbie but rather is instructed to help escort the caravan on its journey, and thus, without any magic but that of cinema, his world and that of the desert thieves meet, and the three, along with the sheikh's body, travel on.
Structured in chapters based on Sufi prayer positions (bowing, standing, prostrating), the film's procession through the rugged landscape isn’t presented so much as an ordeal but rather as a low-key phantasmagorical journey. The spiritual or physical challenge for all three men—and an eventual young woman who joins—is in fact remarkably muted. The warmth imbued from the celluloid photography—never looking for the picturesque or pretty, yet always thrumming with an undercurrent of energy and beauty—and the dubbing of many voices and sounds removes turns the men's half-acknowledged pilgrimage into a dream—but an unexpectedly lucid one.
This unusual clarity and the anecdotal, unpretentious nature of the story's bare, quiet movements, admittedly had me struggling for the source of the film's inner purpose, as I found myself a bit stranded in the abstraction of an empty landscape with few signposts. Quite possibly, Mimosas may be subtly playing off of cultural or literary traditions and sources lost on me, not being familiar with the Sufi religion or the tales of the region. It was a struggle that I also had with Ben Rivers’ beautiful film, which made me, as a viewer, feel like a wanderer myself, looking of an oasis or escape to something concrete. It could very well be that watching this alluring but strange new film back-to-back with its British forbearer, The Sky Trembles, is the ideal experience. That film had the foresight to send Mimosas’s director on his own difficult path of ambiguous religiosity, and thus when combined with Oliver Laxe's new film, the duo may give way to an ideal experience of mirrored, refracted and amplified tales of desert pathmaking and the search for spiritual equilibrium.