Year:  2022

Director:  Maryam Touzani

Rated:  M

Release:  May 18, 2023

Distributor: Potential Films

Running time: 122 minutes

Worth: $19.00
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

Lubana Azabal, Saleh Bakri, Ayoub Missioui

… heartbreaking and life affirming, but most of all it is emotionally gentle and kind …

Writer/director Maryam Touzani’s second feature The Blue Caftan is as meticulously crafted as the petroleum blue caftan of its title. A story about the complexities of love and tradition, the film is heartbreaking and life affirming, but most of all it is emotionally gentle and kind, giving its three main characters an opportunity to speak volumes about contemporary Morocco without ever losing sight of their humanity within the oppressive society.

Mina (Lubana Azabal) and her husband Halim (Saleh Bakri) run a small store in a medina in Salé in costal Morocco. Halim is a maalem, or dressmaker, who learned his trade from his father. Eschewing modern methods for making caftans, Halim is a craftsman who uses traditional hand embroidery to fashion his exquisite caftans. The business is in trouble because the general clientele have become impatient and are not prepared to wait on the time-consuming creation of the garments when machine embroidery is almost indistinguishable from the ancient art of hand embroidery. Running behind on their orders, they take on a young apprentice Youssef (Ayoub Missioui) to attempt to keep pace with the demands of their few but essential customers.

At first, Touzani seems to set up Mina and Halim’s marriage as one that is painful for the closeted Halim. Mina is hawkeyed and no-nonsense and clocks the mutual attraction between Halim and Youssef (conveyed in aching glances and subtle gestures especially redolent in the creation of the caftan). A scene in their marriage bed where Mina instigates sex with Halim appears to be a small torture for Halim. However, Touzani’s script defies expectations and the marriage between Mina and Halim is one of the purest forms of loving without judgement.

Halim cannot control his homosexuality, as much as he has tried to repress it, and regularly attends the hammam (bathhouse) for anonymous encounters with men. Slowly falling in love with Youssef is something different, something more dangerous (homosexuality is outlawed in Maghreb) and possibly destabilising in his love for Mina.

As the narrative progresses, we become aware that Mina’s vaguely referred-to illness is actually breast cancer and she has reached the point where there are no more medical interventions that can save her. Mina’s increasing absence from the shop allows Halim and Youssef’s attraction develop to the point where the young man professes his love for Halim and is rebuffed, which leads him to quit.

Touzani moves the film into Mina and Halim’s domestic space, where we learn just how much the couple love each other. Mina has been Halim’s rock and sole family for twenty-five years and his heartbreak at watching his once vivid and rebellious wife slowly wither from the disease is conveyed with great pathos. Youssef notices that the shop has been shuttered for a while and re-enters their lives, slowly becoming part of the family.

Touzani’s truthfully made drama is a tribute to kindness and a testament to love. Whether that be the love of a dying craft, or the unbreakable bond between husband and wife, or the seductive pull of a true and forbidden passion. The three outsiders become the centre of a melancholy but at times joyous world where they are provided the opportunity to reveal the very best of themselves.

Cinematographer Virginie Surdej’s work is a stellar accompaniment to Touzani’s detail-oriented vision. Surdej films with intimacy that uncovers how fleeting moments can be indelible and true. From the exquisite blue caftan that remains at the centre of the narrative; to the three characters dancing to the music that pours in from the open window of the apartment, to Halim washing Mina’s hair – no shot is wasted, and none exists without purpose.

Lubana Azabel is astonishing as the multifaceted Mina, but it is Saleh Bakri’s Halim whose incredible gaze conveys deep wells of emotion and pain, and who is the one that the audience will be unable to resist. Although all three actors do brilliant work, Bakri is operating on a heightened level that evokes more than sympathy for Halim, but genuine empathy for a man who has hidden his desires and carries self-loathing and guilt with him.

The Blue Caftan is a brave piece of Maghreb cinema. Considering the subject matter and the laws surrounding homosexuality in Morocco, it is amazing that it was even made, and everyone involved has taken a risk with the production. The film’s plea to recognise the humanity of queer people is one that unfolds without the need to preach. Touzani’s characters are so impeccably rendered that they defy anyone to rebuff them.

Not only an essential piece of queer cinema and a strikingly compassionate film, The Blue Caftan is an ode to patience and perseverance in a world where tradition can be both something to honour and something that must be challenged. Most of all, it is about how love is rarely simple, yet the act of loving someone is the purest form of humanity. The Blue Caftan is a work as beautiful and intricate as the hand embroidery on the eponymous garment, and cements Maryam Touzani as a director whose films are quite simply unmissable.