Dan Webster reviews "The Blue Caftan"
When writer-director Maryam Touzani’s film The Blue Caftan opens, we see the fabric that is central to the film’s very meaning—silk as blue as the sea passing reverently through the hands of what we come to learn is a "maalem" (or master).
Thus are we introduced to Halim (played by Saleh Bakri), a Moroccan tailor who insists on working the way he learned from his father, by hand. Because he is a master, and an artist, he refuses to give in to what his impatient customers would prefer, that he use machines to churn out his creations ever faster.
Aiding him in this life mission is his wife and protector, Mina (played by Lubna Azabal), who when dealing with those same customers can be beguiling or brusque, depending on the situation. Though she is of fragile health, Mina becomes an imposing presence whenever anyone doesn’t show what she considers to be the proper respect for Halim’s artistry.
Into this—what Kurt Vonnegut would call a "duprass"—comes Youssef (played by Ayoub Missioui), a young man who does respect Halim, and who wants to learn his trade. And, too, it becomes clear, he has feelings toward Halim that are far more intimate.
Which hardly comes as a surprise. Though they have been married for 25 years, Halim and Mina have an unusual relationship: he is gay, and he works out his sexual needs on occasion at a local "hammam" (or bathhouse). This is Morocco, mind you, where same-sex activity is deemed “lewd or unnatural” and can result in imprisonment, not to mention fines.
And at first, it seems as if the marriage is either a sham, with Mina either in the dark or acting as the cover (the beard, so to speak) that protects Halim from the law. It’s clear soon enough, though, that the two genuinely care for each other, with Halim as concerned about Mina’s health as she is for his reputation. Things do heat up, and seem to go off track, when Youssef enters the picture, and Mina appears to be threatened by the developing connection between her husband and his young apprentice. At one point she even implies that Youssef is a thief—or at least is incompetent.
It's at this juncture that The Blue Caftan appears to be following in the path of so many other cinematic studies—particularly in the U.S.—in which the behavior of LGBTQ+ characters traditionally have been portrayed as—to use Morocco’s legal description—“lewd or unnatural.” All too often such characters have been treated as comic, tragic or—maybe even worse—irrelevant.
Writer-director Touzani, though, has something else in mind. Not to give too much away, but instead of presenting just another storyline of jealousy, betrayal and vengeance, The Blue Caftan becomes a moving study of loyalty, of love, and of acceptance.
More so than in most films, what Touzani is attempting to do depends on her cast. Her camera dwells on the faces of her three main characters, each of whom has something special to contribute. Bakri gives the tailor Halim a sense of solemn integrity, a feel for someone bent on creating clothing as art that will “pass the test of time.” And Missioui adds his own touch to Youssef’s longing—whether it is for the craft, for Halim, or both.
It is Azabal’s Mina, though, around whom the film revolves. Devoted to Halim, both as a master embroiderer and as a husband, she recognizes his true nature—yet she doesn’t reject him. And he values this, having lacked such acknowledgement from his father.
Azabal’s contribution, then, is key to the success of The Blue Caftan. Some viewers might complain about Touzani’s penchant for creating long scenes that are skillfully crafted but decidedly slow. Others might figure out how the film is going to end the first time Mina lets slip a delicate cough.
Yet Azabal is able to strike just the right balance in portraying a woman in declining health who chooses to be both tough and vulnerable, as needed, to support the husband she loves—a man who, as much as he can, loves her in return. The poignance of that mutual regard makes all the difference.
For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.
Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for Spokesman.com/7blog.