Mimosas plays October 5 and 6 as part of the Explorations sidebar within the 54th New York Film Festival. The film will be released theatrically by Grasshopper Film at a date to be determined. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.
A western viewer might be forgiven for wondering if the opening scenes of Mimosas take place simultaneously or across separate timelines. We are introduced to a caravan transporting a dying sheikh across the Atlas Mountains to the city of Sijilmasa, while disparate scenes depict taxi drivers lobbying for fares and making repairs on their vehicles. The city of Sijilmasa is no longer officially recognized, but one of those cab drivers, Shakib, eventually joins up with what remains of the caravan to help with the journey. The extent to which the question occurs to the viewer says a lot about the viewer and his or her perceptions of modernity, progress, and “the present,” but as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that director Oliver Laxe, a Parisian born to Spanish immigrants, is also investigating these notions in his Moroccan Sufi Western; they are not extraneous.
Shakib joins the caravan after the sheikh has died and when two scheming guides, Saïd and Ahmed, agree to continue to Sijilmasa with the body when all others turn back—not out of good will or because they know a shortcut, as they claim, but for the money. His faith confounds Ahmed and Saïd, and much of the character drama results from these clashes of faith as Laxe interrogates how extreme skepticism and devotion function in different cultures today. When he arrives Shakib is something of a “village idiot” type, whom Ahmed defends because he helps and doesn’t complain, rather than out of any personal virtues. But when Shakib catches and berates them for sending the sheikh off on a donkey to escape their mission, they begin to grasp his sense of values, even if they continue to be baffled as he sends Ahmed and Saïd down a nearly invisible mountain path and clamors for the mules to fly across it.
Mules cannot fly, of course, but what leaves an impression, both on the viewer and on Ahmed and Saïd, is the transformative power of simply holding faith rather than the results (or lack thereof) it generates. The power dynamics thus begin to reverse, with Shakib ultimately inciting an entirely irrational action solely on the basis of faith. That Laxe ends the film before we can see the outcome shows us where his real concerns are.
The cultural particulars and the larger implications of these dynamics of faith may be tough for a western viewer to fully absorb. Our only interpretive hints are chapter titles named for Sufi prayer positions and possibly a story Shakib delivers about Satan learning to pray, in which he curiously, perhaps significantly, gets a name wrong. Nevertheless, the presentation of ideological clashes amid a treacherous journey provides a genre element that helps the film function as a western or adventure film. This juxtaposition of clear genre elements with art film’s own tropes—minuscule bodies navigating overwhelming landscapes—recalls films from Meek’s Cutoff to Jauja and creates pleasures beyond the intellectual.
The most obvious—and the most remarked upon, if least interrogated, in many similar movies—is the cinematography, which one might call “gorgeous,” “striking,” “beautiful,” or any similar adjective. Mimosas is indeed all of these things, capturing palatial mountain structures with careful precision with regard to both framing and lighting, as well as watching taxis coast through the open desert at sunset from a few distinct, equally awe-inspiring shots. The industrial/modern absence inherent in all landscapes, most of all as figures begin to appear in them, figures heavily in Mimosas across visual and narrative levels.
As such, it should go without saying that genre elements, an established (if broad) narrative and visual spectacle intertwine to create space for a “Muslim Western,” as Laxe has called it, and also propose questions about the film, the viewer, and broader sociocultural questions. That such avant-garde provocations emerge in a film far less intimidating than descriptions suggests further says a great deal about the uniqueness and the urgency of Mimosas.