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The Review/ Short Read/

Oliver Laxe: Modern Mystic

The Franco-Spanish filmmaker transcending boundaries and borders

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by Andréa Picard
Dec 4, 2019

The TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Oliver Laxe: Modern Mystic begins Tuesday, March 17.

In the past decade, the Franco-Spanish filmmaker Oliver Laxe has made three features, all of which have premiered and won awards at the Cannes Film Festival — an auspicious start for this nomadic free spirit whose approach to both film and life speaks of a desire for transcendence: of boundaries and borders, of linearity, of genres, of consumerist values, and of the negation of life's essence. After studying filmmaking in Barcelona, Laxe travelled to and subsequently settled in Tangier for 12 years, where he led a filmmaking workshop for disadvantaged youth living in a centre for foster care. He recruited his students to help create his first feature, You Are All Captains, a metafictional experiment in which Laxe plays a version of himself — i.e., a privileged neocolonialist European filmmaker using Moroccan kids for his own artistic ends — in order to provocatively subvert the risky business of Westerners filming in Africa.

Laxe's use of non-professional actors, real locations, and analogue film, as well as his willingness to submit to chance during shooting, have become hallmarks of his cinema. Inspired in part by the director's itinerant travels through Morocco and his immersion in Sufism, his second feature, Mimosas — an epic, mystical, psychedelic pseudo-western whose production served as the backdrop for Ben Rivers' The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers — depicts the journey of a caravan escorting a dying sheik to the medieval city of Sijilmasa, which has to rely on the leadership of a young, wild-eyed preacher/idiot savant to safely reach its destination. Enhanced by Mauro Herce's stunning 16mm cinematography and evoking everything from Biblical sagas to Clouzot's The Wages of Fear and Gus Van Sant's Gerry, Mimosas ponders the diverse paths one can take in this lifetime and enacts encounters with the divine.

Winner of the Jury Prize in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section last year, Laxe's latest film, Fire Will Come — his first shot in Spain, in the remote Galician mountains where his grandparents lived — is more sombre and crepuscular in tone than the sun-drenched Moroccan films, its vast and misty eucalyptus forest dwarfing the characters as they enact a muted but mystically charged drama of sacrifice and deliverance. The climactic conflagration that engulfs the woods (an actual blaze that Laxe and his crew braved to shoot the sequence, having waited through the hot, dry summer months for just such an occasion) is equal parts a vision of devastation and a lyrical surrender to forces more powerful than ourselves — a concept that hews directly to the filmmaker's spiritual beliefs. In Laxe's own words, "in my films, I want to show a concept that is dear to me: that of a sovereign submission that we can define as such. Accepting that we are not free renders us free."