The Blue Caftan by Maryam Touzani is a beautiful film celebrating understated love and tenderness in everyday life.
Moroccan Blueby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
A maalem is a master craftsman. In the medina, the old part, of the Moroccan city of Salé, gentle Halim (Saleh Bakri) is a maalem, a master tailor, making beautifully embroidered bespoke caftans in the traditional way, by hand. His more assertive wife Mina (Lubna Azabal) runs the shop and deals tactfully with their demanding customers. Their handsome new apprentice Youssef (Ayoub Missioui) is quiet, diligent and keen to learn the skill that Halim wants to pass on. Sewing everything by hand as Halim does is very slow, customers are getting impatient, wondering why he doesn’t used a sewing machine, and Halim needs an extra pair of hands to help him create his exquisite work. But jaded Mina thinks Youssef will be like the string of other apprentices they have had and go off to be a delivery driver. Respect for the traditional way of life is rare.
Halim handles the silks, satins and velvets he sews as lovingly as if they were alive – which to him they are. We see close-ups of his hands doing intricate gold-thread embroidery on the expensive garments. It’s work that only he knows how to do now he is the only surviving maalem. The film opens by dwelling on the blue lusciousness of the material of a caftan that a customer has ordered: and fabrics are woven into the film’s many visual and verbal metaphors for life.
Very gradually, we learn – though looks and glances rather than dialogue – that Halim is a closeted homosexual in a country where homosexuality is illegal. He makes furtive trips to the bathhouse to meet men, but cannot help being silently and deeply attracted to pliant Youssef, a feeling that may be reciprocated by the younger man. Gradually too, we learn that Mina is aware of her husband’s nature, and also that she may be dying.
This haunting film is about the quiet love and tenderness that people may have for each other, which makes the ordinary extraordinary. We come to know and understand more about these three as their lives entwine into a new way of living. They are human beings in a repressive society that is becoming more intrusive, even in the medina.
Meanwhile, despite personal tragedy, Halim has to finish making the client’s ceremonial blue caftan. When it is finished, it is given to the person who really deserves to wear it.
The Blue Caftan film looks as beautiful as the blue caftan that Halim creates. Blue is also a mystical colour. Think Blue Velvet. If the caftan had been red or yellow, what a different film this would be.
Director Maryam Touzani’s previous film Adam dealt with traditional bread-making in a similar way to tailoring. It also starred acclaimed actress Lubna Azabal. Touzani also directed Casablanca Beats.
The Blue Caftan premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in Un Certain Regard, where it won several awards, and screened at the BFI London Film Festival. It is Morocco’s entry for the Oscars in 2023 for Best International Feature Film.