This was my third pick at Leeds International Film Festival that turned out to have been screened at Cannes this year. It must have been a good year because The Blue Caftan is a very affecting three-hander, an intimate and almost chamber drama that opens out in its final moments. Initially I was a little concerned by its reported length (118 minutes – originally 124?) as the drama moves slowly, but the final third of the narrative confirms the assured handling of pacing by writer-director Maryam Touzani.
Halim, a traditional Moroccan tailor or maalem, and his wife Mina run a shop making caftans for special occasions in the medina of the Moroccan city of Salé on the Northern coast. Almost the entire narrative takes place in just four locations in the narrow streets of the old city – the shop, the couple’s apartment, the Turkish bathhouse and a local café. At first the narrative seems to be setting up a theme of resistance to modernity. Halim was taught a wide range of skills by his father and he refuses to move over to machine-made caftans, preferring to do everything by hand. However, this admirable preference for craft skills faces the economic reality of modern consumer preference. Customers don’t want to wait several weeks for the caftan of their choice. Some of the hard-headed customers try to claim that they can’t tell the difference between hand-made and machine-made and threaten to go elsewhere. Halim knows the value of his work, but the shop is gradually declining. He takes on a new apprentice but Mina, who seems to take a dislike to the young man Youssef, says he will not stay to learn the craft but will take a job elsewhere as a driver or a porter.
Youssef is a particularly quiet and beautiful young man but his presence in the shop is disruptive. Halim’s attraction to Youssef is introduced with subtlety but Mina’s aggression is quite open, accusing the young man of losing materials and implying theft. Is she aware of Halim’s occasional meetings with other men in a room in the bathhouse? Is the marriage under threat? I don’t want to spoil much more of the plot but the nature of the narrative changes when it becomes apparent that Mina has a serious medical condition and that the prognosis is not good.
Maryam Touzani explains in the (French) Press Notes that she conceived the story after meeting a hairdresser in the medina, a man who she felt might be creating a front for a very conservative society. She didn’t feel able to question him but eventually a story came to her and she felt compelled to write it. Mina and Halim have an unusual marriage for the society in that Mina appears the dominant partner and Halim, a tall and potentially imposing man is actually rather withdrawn and gentle. When the illness strikes, however, he becomes a strong carer and is prepared to do anything for Mina to allow her to deal with the prognosis as she thinks fit. Youssef has had a difficult young life but he proves to be exactly the apprentice that Halim needs. Homosexuality is still illegal in Morocco, although there is an increasing recognition that it has always been part of Moroccan society and attitudes may be changing. Ironically, perhaps the modernising impulse that threatens Halim’s craft will one day legitimise his sexual desires? Of course his craft skills should not be lost but perhaps he needs to find a different way of practising them if Youssef is going to be able to become a maalem?
In an intimate ‘chamber film’ like this the performances are under even greater scrutiny than usual. Both Lubna Azabal and Saleh Bakri are excellent. I realise that I’ve seen them before several times in different films. I think both of them play a little older than their true ages and Azabal must have lost a significant amount of weight for the role. She was born in Brussels and has Moroccan heritage while Bakri is from a Palestinian acting family. It strikes me that Bakri might have required a language coach since I think Palestinian and Moroccan Arabic are different? I’m not competent to judge. I haven’t managed to find out much about Ayoub Missioui but I was very impressed with his performance as part of the central trio.
The nature of the film also puts great pressure on the cinematographer Virginie Surdej and she rises to the challenge of shooting in confined spaces and in lighting close-up detailed work on the caftans. Similarly the costume designer Rafika Benmaimoune has to find materials and work with the maalem who actually made the caftan at the centre of the narrative. The director tells us that she herself found the ‘petroleum blue’ fabric in a Paris market. This is a wonderful film. I found it deeply moving and an important part of the narrative is the occasional lightly comic moment. I highly recommend the film that will be Morocco’s entry for the Oscar . I fear, however that it might struggle to get wide international distribution. It is due to be released in France in March 2023. If you only get the chance to see it on a streamer next year, do go for it. Here’s a trailer (presumably designed for phones, the film is actually in a 1.85:1 ratio):