The Blue Caftan
In Morocco, women of high social standing take pride in wearing caftans during ceremonies. A caftan is a traditional outfit in the form of a long tunic and is considered the ultimate formal attire by dignitaries in Arab and Persian cultures. This fine piece of clothing is woven deftly into the narrative of Morocco’s official submission to this year’s Oscar category for Best International Feature Film, The Blue Caftan (2022). The film’s sensual and fluid fabric is held together by a middle-aged married couple, Halim (Saleh Bakri) and Mina (Lubna Azabal), who own and run a caftan store in the medina of Salé, Morocco.
Halim is the artisanal practitioner of a dying art, as most dressmakers have turned to machine-sewing—faster than handmade tailoring but lacking its finesse. Such is Halim’s honesty to the craft that when an elderly woman brings a fifty-year-old caftan to him for minor amends, he confesses that only one other maalem (traditional dressmaker) could work on it, but he is no longer living. Running behind on deadlines, the couple hire an apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui), to help Halim share the load. This addition of a new thread in the couple’s lives tests the elasticity of their marriage. Eager to learn the craft, the young lad begins to bond with Halim, who can’t help but feel attracted to the handsome man. We become witness to stealing glances, sexual tension, and yearning for contact between the two. Despite their repressed behavior, the perceptive Mina is quick to sense the burgeoning emotions, invoking her insecurity and jealousy.
The Blue Caftan revolves around the interplay between the three protagonists. Mina’s initial resistance to Youssef is eventually dissolved by his sincere and kind nature. Through love, tenderness, and forgiveness, writer-director Maryam Touzani stitches together a tight and delicate bond among them. Despite being a closeted gay man, Halim shares a profound relationship with Mina, who is suffering from a terminal illness. Their marriage is built on years of companionship, trust, devotion, and respect. Mina, the stronger one, has been a rock-solid force for Halim, who had an unloved childhood. Even at their caftan shop, he is the docile artisan while she deals with demanding customers shrewdly and firmly. When the district chief’s wife, who has commissioned the titular caftan, asks Halim to speed up, Mina chides her, “My husband is a maalem, not a machine.” With time, Mina’s assertiveness rubs off on Halim. The same caftan catches the eye of another female customer, who offers a higher price for it when Halim tells her that it is reserved for someone else. When Halim rejects her offer, she asks for a similar royal blue piece. He snarkily corrects her, “It’s petroleum blue.”
For Halim, who struggles with reciprocating the physical affection of his wife, discreet homosexual encounters with other gay men in a local hammam are his way of releasing pent-up feelings. But later, with Mina becoming bedridden, he stops indulging in casual encounters and devotes himself completely to her care. The film’s emotional quotient peaks when Youssef joins him in tending to Mina, leading to a few misty-eyed scenes. Not all is doom and gloom in this poignant drama. Touzani interjects it with moments of banter, fun, and frolic. Halim and Mina mimic the snobbish behavior of the district chief’s wife after she leaves the store, and they have a hearty laugh at her expense. Mina, in a playful mood, takes Halim to a male-dominated cafe where her mischievous act draws the attention of other men. In one striking scene, the effervescent Mina starts dancing at her home to the boombox music from a nearby salon. She makes Halim and Youssef lose their inhibitions and dance with her.
The Blue Caftan succeeds in emotionally drawing one into its world, which can largely be credited to the stellar performances by the leads. Azabal plays Mina with a fine balance of sternness and fragility; she forms the glue connecting the trio. Debut actor Missioui’s flirtatious eyes and expressive face reveal Youssef’s mind and heart without much dependence on words. The most endearing character is Halim, whom Bakri portrays with perfect restraint and nobility. His innocent eyes, soft voice, and shyness contribute to the goodness in him feeling palpable. Touzani’s efforts to imbue her film with a visceral quality are aided by Virginie Surdej’s cinematography, through which tight close-ups edgily capture the nuances of the actors’ facial expressions and the richly-embroidered satin caftans. Costumes by Rafika Benmaimoun, set design by Rachid El Youssfi and Emmanuel De Meulmeester, and sound by Nassim El Mounabbih embellish and refine the film further.
The spirit of The Blue Caftan is embodied by the character of Mina, and the significance of the titular caftan becomes evident toward the end of the film. In fact, Touzani drops a hint much before when Halim and Mina overlook the funeral procession of a popular artist going past their building. Mina tells her husband that the woman who made the whole of Salé dance would have dreamed of a more colorful farewell. Halim takes note of it and, in the end, imbibes his wife’s rebellious boldness. Touzani is no less a maalem than the singular Halim. She weaves her film exquisitely with much grace and precision, ensuring that not even a single frame or dialogue exchange feels unworthy.