“Mimosas,” the second feature from Morocco-based director Oliver Laxe, won the Nespresso Grand Prize at this year’s Cannes Critics’ Week, and Nespresso isn’t a terrible idea for anyone who walks in without preparation for this minimalist travelogue and crypto-Western, which offers relatively few clues to its goals and intents. Still, those familiar with the ethnographic works of Ben Rivers (who gets a thanks in the closing credits) and the films of Argentine director Lisandro Alonso (“Jauja”) will find much to admire in the movie’s combination of spiritual musings and stunning landscapes. Favoring longueurs by design, it is a decidedly noncommercial project that asks to be taken or left on its own terms.
Laxe’s first feature, “You All Are Captains” (which showed in Directors’ Fortnight in 2010), combined fiction and documentary elements, and he has said that “Mimosas” was inspired by his own travels with Saïd Aagli, who plays one of the main characters. The plot concerns a caravan in Morocco that’s escorting a dying sheikh to the medieval city of Sijilmasa, where he will be buried. At the film’s outset — which one might easily mistake for being set centuries ago — the travelers consider whether to shorten the distance by going through the Atlas Mountains, even though it’s not clear if that holds a route to their destination.
In a disorienting transition, Laxe brings us to a seemingly more modern place, where there’s a recruiting call for workers. Shakib (Shakib Ben Omar), who appears to be a mechanic but doubles as an amateur preacher for the locals (at one point he emblazons a car with a decal that reads, “Don’t forget God”), is selected as a co-driver for the caravan. He is told that his goal is to help the group arrive safely. When he joins the travelers, he arrives by climbing over a hill, looking very much like a prophet.
Although the sheikh soon dies, two roguish members of the caravan, Saïd (Aagli) and Ahmed (Ahmed Hammoud), who seem to have had plans to steal from the dead man, claim to know the way through the mountains. And so the film goes off the beaten track, plot-wise and geographically. The movie’s largely scenic pleasures — both visual and aural, with a great deal of windswept soundscaping — wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in Ford or Hawks, whether it’s in a scene of river fording, a stunning shot of a lake by moonlight, or the simple sight of a mule nibbling at the sparse grass.
But as the group loses its bearings — there is a bit of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” here, and perhaps of Beckett as well — Shakib grows increasingly overt in his appeals to faith, which he feels will guide the way to Sijilmasa. It’s at this point that “Mimosas” begins to grow repetitive and perhaps more obscure, to the point that the most agnostic and literal-minded of viewers may have trouble going with the poetic flow. It’s also clearly the sort of film that can seem at once spartan and over-conceptualized, in the sense that its narrative has clearly developed out of a series of abstract, academic theses.
“Mimosas” is divided into three sections named for different elements of Islamic prayer, which perhaps provides one entryway on how to view the film’s arc. The 16mm photography impresses, particularly in long shots of the characters trudging through the snow or — à la “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” — descending en masse from great heights, although the look was decidedly digital in the DCP transfer.