‘The Blue Caftan’: A Masterful Take on Delicate Subjects

Director Maryam Touzani has crafted a significant and empathetic movie about homosexuality, marriage, and illness within a predominantly Muslim country.

Via Strand Releasing
Lubna Azabal and Saleh Bakri in ‘The Blue Caftan.’ Via Strand Releasing

“The Blue Caftan” didn’t make the final five up for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Academy Awards, yet it stands as a significant and empathetic movie about homosexuality and marriage within a predominantly Muslim country. Set in Morocco, the film explores the loving relationship between a man and his wife who knows he is gay, and how illness heightens one’s awareness of both the complexity and simplicity of life. 

At least initially, the film moves quickly, establishing the state of their relationship, their vocations, and recent alterations to their routine. Husband Halim is a master tailor, creating, embroidering, and customizing caftans, while wife Mina runs the shop, taking care of fussy customers, the finances, and inventory. Their closeness is apparent, with a minimum of words required to understand each other, yet there is a coolness between them. 

The hiring of a new assistant for Halim, a young man called Youssef, worries Mina because she doesn’t believe he’s serious about learning the craft, and because Halim is clearly taken with him. Adding to their troubles is the return of Mina’s cancer and its agonizing pain at certain moments.

Halim works long hours sewing and stitching by hand, as he refuses to use a sewing machine, and one of his outlets for relaxation is the local hamman. Anyone who’s seen the 1997 film “Steam: The Turkish Bath” or even that famous scene in Kubrick’s “Spartacus” between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis will speculate on another reason why he goes to the bathhouse. Sure enough, Halim is seen stoically following another man into a private room. A scene of lovemaking between Halim and Mina a little later proves to be just as desolate, if a touch more revealing.

Besides the public baths, the two main locales in the movie are the garment shop in which the characters work and the couple’s apartment. We catch a few glimpses of a market and café, yet no effort is made to have the drama’s setting encompass more of the cramped environs of the medina or the city and its population at large. This claustrophobia, coupled with the frequent use of close-ups, would make for a limited visual experience if not for the sensuality of many shots, like when Halim is handling fabric, and the fantastic use of ambient sound. 

In nearly every scene in the shop and apartment, one can hear in the background other voices, seagulls, construction racket, music, the Muslim call-to-prayer, and further surrounding sounds, suffusing “The Blue Caftan” in an atmosphere of authenticity and musicality beyond any piped-in soundtrack.

Director Maryam Touzani is to be commended for having her actors keep explosions of emotion to a minimum, with actor Saleh Bakri particularly affecting as the conflicted Halim. As Mina, Lubna Azabal maintains the commanding presence she’s brought to parts both large and small, such as in André Téchiné’s “Changing Times,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies,” and Ms. Touzani’s last movie, “Adam.” Ayoub Missioui, who plays Youssef, may one day master the craft of acting as his counterparts have, though he does bring an informal quality to the prevailing mood of solemnity.

As Mina’s health worsens, the rhythm of the movie gets slower and repetitive, becoming almost dirge-like as her character leaves the apartment less and less, and Halim takes care of her more frequently. A blue caftan he is embroidering with gold thread for an important client remains unfinished and Youssef brings it to their home so that work on the garment can continue. Soon, earlier moments of Mina’s playfulness appear again as she starts to warm to Youssef, and a lovely scene of all three of them dancing reveals how she’s preparing both men for a time when she won’t be around. 

Ms. Azabal’s face says it all and it’s a heartbreaking portrait of curiosity, acceptance, wish-fulfillment, and happiness.

Several clues to how the film might end come via seemingly unimportant lines and actions, and some moviegoers might notice them more than this viewer did. Perhaps that’s why I was bowled over with emotion at its crescendo, when we are finally afforded a wide shot of the surrounding area. While emphasizing the everyday rhythms of life in a Moroccan city, Ms. Touzani skillfully kept the location filming tight and the oppression of the general society subtle in order to maximize the endpoint of her story’s narrative and themes. 

Even the short denouement after this dramatic culmination, as Halim and Youssef are shown hiding in plain sight, brings “The Blue Caftan” to a masterful, subversive close, challenging the notion that homosexuality does not exist in Muslim countries.

The New York Sun

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