At a Medina in Morocco in the city of Sale, Halim (Saleh Bakri, 'The Band's Visit') runs a caftan store with his wife Mina (Lubna Azabal, 'Incendies'). Life is not always so easy for the couple, for handcrafted caftans are becoming more expensive to produce, more time-consuming to make, and the traditional methods of tailoring are being overcome by the machines. Nevertheless, though they argue about deadlines and worry about their futures, Halim and Mina seem to run a beautiful business - if not in profit, then in product and character.
Help in the store comes in the form of Youssef (Ayoub Missioui), a young and forthright man who takes an immediate liking to the craft and wants to learn the trade. Unlike the help that has come before him, Youssef is enthusiastic and won't just leave when the next job opportunity comes knocking. However, when Mina starts to feel the effects of her ill health and Halim takes command of the store, they - along with Youssef - find themselves entangled in all sorts of challenges, perhaps none more so than the love Halim and Youssef can feel burning for one another.
Unlike other love triangle films before it, Maryam Touzani's ('Adam') 'The Blue Caftan' doesn't distract itself with passion or lustful infidelity. Rather, Touzani - much like a handcrafted caftan - weaves a delicate and tactile film that boasts excellent performances and beautiful projections of love that display a maturity and sense of self beyond what one might expect of a film coming out of North Africa. This could be my ignorance more than anything speaking, but the sheer restraint and purity of emotions really surprised me in the most pleasant ways.
'The Blue Caftan' is somehow so fleeting and yet so tactile. Being a religious Islamic nation, homosexuality is forbidden, and so Halim must act on his impulses secretly at the local bathhouse. Audiences never witness any acts, but it is hardly subtle what is going on. Further to this, there is a beautiful respect for modesty that Halim has for his wife Mina, turning his back when she needs to get changed as an example of how much he cares and respects her. This being the case, due to the nature of love felt for his wife and the forbidden love of Youssef, every touch, every glance and every deep breath feels so heavy and so filled with emotion. To call it lust or desire is a disservice to the genuine admiration these characters have for one another, which overflows with respect and care to an intricate and dramatic finale.
Mina can no longer run the store due to her health, and Halim joins her at home to care for her and be with her before her inevitable demise. And at no point, though his feelings for Youssef and his actions at the bathhouse are clear, does he show anything but a deep love for his wife. It may not be physical or the love of his deepest desires, but there is so much present for the audience to grab onto and feel through the performance. Touzani wants audiences to see love in all forms, and although it may be a very simple message found in many pieces of art, this film holds its own through its pure emotions and moving characters.
Halim's forbidden love of Youssef, every touch, every glance and every deep breath feels so heavy and so filled with emotion. To call it lust or desire is a disservice to the genuine admiration these characters have for one another.
The titular blue caftan as a motif in the film can probably be taken in many ways. Mina and Halim have a difficult customer who has ordered a beautiful petrol blue caftan with golden stitches that, from her perspective, is taking too long to make and is not worth the trouble. For Halim, every stitch is sacred no matter how far past the deadline he goes. With each new stitch comes not only a new learning opportunity for Youssef internally but also for how he sees the world outside of his little shop. Woven with such specific care and a fine hand, the details of the caftan must stand out, and so too does the art of the filmmaker. One can only appreciate the delicate piece when it's given adequate attention and focus.
Azabel is really quite remarkable as the matriarch in the triangle. She balances her ever-flowing emotions of joy, grief, stoicism and love so well, always perfectly matching Halim's often-reserved but caring demeanour. 'The Blue Caftan' is a very character-driven story and, thankfully, evokes strong performances from all leads. It's no wonder the film was chosen to represent Morocco at this year's Academy Awards in the Best International Feature Film category.
Sitting at just over two hours long, I kept thinking that at some point I will either get bored or something will inevitably happen that will take me out of the film - but neither occurred. I can't say I agreed with all the character decisions, but they all made sense to some extent and all aided the characters to a degree. 'The Blue Caftan' is a truly magnificent film that doesn't aim too high, but passes with flying colours to ensure the delivery of a poignant and tender film that will leave audiences feeling the beauties of love in all its forms.