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At one point in The Blue Caftan, a master tailor instructs his young apprentice in cutting fabric. They stand with their bodies pressed close together, their hands intertwined, clutching a pair of large shears. The scene is suffused with eroticism and as the tailor speaks, the symbolic implication of what they are about to do becomes clear. He tells the young man to be certain before making the cut because there is no going back.
Maryam Touzani’s second feature, which won the Fipresci award at Cannes last year, is an overwhelmingly tender, dignified drama. It offers a powerful vision of love and bravery, suggesting that the two are inseparable.
Halim (Saleh Bakri) and his wife Mina (Lubna Azabal) own a caftan shop in one of Morocco’s oldest medinas. A stoic master of his craft, Halim sews and embroiders his dazzling handmade caftans in a disappearing tradition inherited from his father, while Mina runs the business side of things – dealing with demanding customers and fabric dealers, and shielding her husband from an impatient world. The couple take on a shy young man named Youssef (Ayoub Missioui) to assist Halim, and together, the two men work on what promises to be Halim’s masterpiece: a glorious blue caftan lined with an intricate gold-patterned trim.
Youssef’s arrival arouses a longing in Halim previously expressed only in fleeting rendezvous with strangers at a local bathhouse. The obvious attraction between the two men stirs hostility between Youssef and Mina, and after she accuses him of stealing fabric, he leaves. Mina soon begins to succumb to a serious illness and Halim neglects the shop in order to care for her. Youssef returns, assisting Halim with his work and helping him care for Mina; a unique bond forms between the three, while the romantic desire between Halim and Youssef intensifies.
Appropriately enough, The Blue Caftan is full of elegantly woven narrative and emotional threads, giving the work a delicately rendered cumulative impact. The film’s deliberately paced dramatic revelations, rather than existing primarily to further the plot, are in the service of something greater: what at first appears to be a story of secret lives and betrayal destined for a tragic end becomes a nuanced portrait of unconditional love and acceptance at its most radical.
Touzani, who worked as a screenwriter and documentarian before moving into features, has an affinity for stories about compassionate, unconventional relationships; her debut, Adam (2019), follows an unwed mother (illegal in Morocco at the time) taken in by a widowed baker. The Blue Caftan is reminiscent of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s humanistic puzzles, in which the closer we get to characters and their situation, the more unexpectedly complex things become. A critical mass of dramatic and psychological details is built up through an impressive marriage of script and performance. The subtleties of Touzani’s actors – their glances, gestures and silences – bring to life the mysteries of the human heart with deft restraint, and at the centre of it all is the sincere connection, sensitively and memorably realised, between Halim and Mina.
At first, their marriage seems a complacent, loveless affair. Mina, however, is fiercely protective of Halim, challenging customers who fail to show his care and talents the proper deference. Slowly, the contours of the fortress they have built against the world become clear: theirs is a love of mutual respect, admiration and safety. Azabal’s portrayal of Mina is rich and expressive; she is brusque when we first meet her, but as the film goes on, her delight and thirst for life emerge.
Bakri’s gentle portrayal of Halim gives the film its quiet dignity. Caught between tradition and a still taboo sexual orientation, Bakri allows emotions to surface only at the most critical moments. The film’s photography supplements this intense interiority with a lush depth of colour and an attention to the work of needle and thread. The fine details of Halim’s work are lovingly lingered upon, showing in his hands and fingertips the site of the tailor’s repressed and relocated passion.
The Blue Caftan is a film that venerates the tradition of craft while arguing that true freedom also requires a break with an oppressive status quo. It ends with a perfect poetic expression of this idea, with a deeply touching gesture from Mina and a tribute from Halim that combine defiance, devotion and transcendent love.
► The Blue Caftan is in UK cinemas from 5 May.