The Blue Caftan review

The Blue Caftan is a rich and intimate tale of forbidden love

4 out of 5 stars

The small narrow Caftan shop in the heart of Salé, Morocco, feels like a remnant of an old way of life. Halim (Saleh Bakri) is maalem, a craftsperson who sews caftans by hand. Brushing up against elements of the modern world, customers wonder why he hasn’t converted to machine work. He works alongside his wife Mina (Lubna Azabal) in a shop inherited by his father. With the work in the shop falling behind, the couple decides to enlist an apprentice, a young man and orphan, Youssef (Ayoub Messioui). 

Tensions bristle on the peripheries of the film’s early scenes. Halim seems concerned with his wife’s health, as he refuses to leave her alone and continually encourages her to eat. The work in the shop has fallen behind, and while Mina, a shrewd and persuasive businesswoman, keeps customers in check, they’ve already lost clients. Both seem aware that their way of life is slipping away, and the loud bustling cityscape, an omniscient reminder of the world passing them by, emphasizes that their little life is not exempt from the external pressures of the outside world. 

The Blue Caftan
Saleh Bakri and Lubna Azabal in The Blue Caftan

Though quiet and attentive, Youssef’s presence disrupts the shop’s routine. Halim’s latent sexual desires are awakened, and the intuitive Mina doesn’t know how to grapple with this young, lithe, healthy body in the crowded space. She targets him with accusations and curt words. The tension rarely spills into overt accusations, but the atmosphere is dense. 

As far as recent films tackling homosexuality under repression go, The Blue Caftan takes many unexpected turns. The development of the character feels rich and singular, motivated by love and discovery rather than tired narrative tropes. The past weighs heavily in this world as the habits and patterns of the old world confront new ideals. Halim’s traditional work allows him to conceal his secret; he seems part of a dying way of life. But, as the shop slips into the obsolete, it brushes up against convention. As it is no longer the norm in an era of mass production, Halim’s ability to hide his true self is compromised.

What is immediately striking about the film is its intimacy. The attentive and slow work at the film’s heart, the sewing of the titular blue caftan, informs the film’s rhythm. Relationships are forged less by what is said (some of the film’s most graphic sexual moments unfold between characters who never exchange words) but through sensuality. The way characters touch and move and the way that they look says more than any words. The world’s pleasures are not rich and decadent as much as they are supple and delicate. The wrong word feels like it might collapse the terrible, beautiful world Halim and Mina embody. 

Part of this intimacy lies in the colour scheme. The film brims with gentle blues and vibrant oranges. The vitality of orange feels like a lifeline in the film, symbolizing renewal and hope. Mina, in particular, is associated with the colour; at one point, it seems the only thing she eats are tangerines. Later in the film, as things shift, a character carefully peels off the membranes from the fruit, feeding their loved one the pearly membranes. It’s more than just a sensual experience but rejuvenating, as one lover tries to help the other hold onto the mortal world. 

The Blue Caftan isn’t a showy or over-the-top film but an understated one. It has a quiet, creeping atmosphere that gets under your skin. The film has a mysterious air with many secrets lying below the surface. It draws you in and pulls you into a realm of the unknown. The direction is sure and confident, unafraid of alienating an audience who might be in a rush or unwilling to submit. If you let yourself be pulled in, it’s a gratifying experience. ■

The Blue Caftan (directed by Maryam Touzani)

The Blue Caftan opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 10.

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