The Blue Caftan (2023 Boston Wicked Queer)

In an old Moroccan medina, Halim (Saleh Bakri, "The Band's Visit") is a maalem, a master crafter of caftans, whose wife of 25 years, Mina (Lubna Azabal, "Incendies"), handles the business side of their shop.  With Mina’s health failing and orders piling up, the couple engage a new apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui), a handsome young man who Mina notices has caught the eye of her husband as the two work together on “The Blue Caftan.”

Laura's Review: A-

Morocco’s shortlisted entry for the 2023 International Film Oscar is an emotional tour de force, a film about love in all its dimensions.  Cowriter (with producer/husband Nabil Ayouch)/director Maryam Touzani ("Adam") defies her country’s laws forbidding same-sex relations by creating a religious woman who eventually not only understands it, but sees the beauty in it because of her own love for ‘the purest man she’s ever known.’  That Touzani is also honoring a dying artisanal skill with cultural resonance adds another layer of beauty, one which cinematographer Virginie Surdej lovingly highlights in shots of shimmering fabrics and close-up needlework.

The couple we meet are ingrained in the every day, walking through narrow alleyways every morning to open up their small shop.  Halim retires to the workspace while Mina deals with the stock and customers, many of whom become impatient waiting for Halim’s painstaking work to be finished only to be met with a wall of defense.  One woman comes in looking for repair work to be done on a fifty year-old caftan only to be told by Halim that the artistry used to create it has died out.  He will do what he can to reinforce it and we see the admiration in his eyes as he shows the workmanship to Youssef.  The dreamboat of an apprentice is a quiet, hard worker we can see is trying to live up to his maalem’s standards.  We can also see Halim observing him when he is not appraising his work and that the young man knows this.   Halim will take care of his needs with visits to the local bath house.          

Yet it is clear Halim loves Mina, as evinced when she convinces him to visit a café on the way home one night.  He’s amused when she cadges a hit from his hookah and jumps in excitement when a goal is scored on a game on TV.  When he finds her collapsed on the floor one night, his concern is near panicked.  When she cannot find some pink satin fabric and accuses Youssef, docking his wages, Halim remains silent, understanding the real cause of her anger.   When Mina’s health deteriorates to the point that she no longer goes to the shop, Youssef rebels against Halim’s reticence, but when the shop remains closed, Halim devoting himself to his wife’s care, it will be Youssef who steps up, opening Mina’s heart.

Azabal is the film’s dynamic life force, even as her character wastes away.  Funny, rebellious and protective of her man, Azabal’s Mina is not someone to tangle with, but a staunch ally to have.  Even better is Bakri, who’s elegant, stoic Halim keeps his emotions tamped down alongside his sexuality so that when they do appear they do so with force.  Missioui leads support with his quiet yet powerful presence.  Zakaria Atifi ("Body of Lies") is the genial fabric seller Bachir who exposes a lie.           

We may always know where Touzani is heading with the titular garment for the demanding wife of a local politician, its petrol blue color notable in one other significant place, but the power of her film lies in its details – a bag of tangerines, moving to music, the reverence of touch.  “The Blue Caftan” is a heart-wrenching testament to love and acceptance.

Robin's Review: A-

Mina (Lubna Azabel) and Halim (Saleh Bakri) own a high-end caftan shop for women in Morocco but their backlog of orders is costing them customers. They hire an apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui), to help with the logjam but something sparks between the husband and their new employee in “The Blue Caftan.”

As the story unfolds, we meet the couple and see the demands placed upon them by their clients, so bringing in Youssef to help makes perfect sense. But, you know there is “something” about Mina and Halim’s marriage that is, shall we say, unconventional in a Muslim society, with its aura of closeted homosexuality – two seemingly polar opposites in that culture.

There is much more than a story about a couple living a loving marriage, even if it is different kind of marriage. It becomes obvious, as the tale plays out, that Mina loves Halim (and vice versa) and has long known they have a marriage of convenience. One would think that the introduction of a handsome young man in their home and business would be one of conflict, but that is not how this story of love plays out.

Meanwhile, we come to understand that Mina is very Ill and her concerns for her husband and mate are palpable. There is genuine love and caring between Mina and Halim and, while Youssef’s presence initially creates a rift, the intent and spirit of these three souls making their way through life is a beautiful thing, on many levels.

This tiny ensemble cast fully fills the screen and you invest yourself in their lives. Direction, by sophomore helmer Maryam Touzani, and screenplay, also by Touzani, is equal to the fine acting, making for a lovely, happy/sad story that satisfies.

Strand Releasing released "The Blue Caftan" in select theaters beginning on 2/10/2023.  It is part of the 2023 Boston Wicked Queer Film Festival - see the schedule here.