Film

Maryam Touzani’s gorgeously subtle second film, The Blue Caftan, shows the skill and intelligence of a much more experienced director. By Christos Tsiolkas.

The Blue Caftan

Two men lean toward each other in a scene from The Blue Caftan
Ayoub Missioui and Saleh Bakri in a scene from The Blue Caftan.
Credit: Potential Films

In Moroccan director Maryam Touzani’s elegant and wise new film, The Blue Caftan, Halim (Saleh Bakri) is a maalem, a master tailor, who has inherited the craft from his father. He and his wife, Mina (Lubna Azabal), own a small dress shop in the medina of their home town in Morocco. Halim insists on maintaining the traditions of the maalem, sewing by hand the exquisite wedding caftans that are his specialty.

When the film opens, they have just hired a new apprentice, Youssef, played by Ayoub Missioui. Though he seems diligent and respectful, Mina is suspicious. “He will be like all the others,” she declares to Halim, convinced that Youssef will leave as soon as the job gets too difficult.

This is Touzani’s second feature film but The Blue Caftan displays the skill and astuteness of a much more experienced director. Co-scripted by herself and Nabil Ayouch, the writing disdains exposition and embellishment. She films largely in close-ups, concentrating on the faces and gestures of her actors, the cluttered fabrics and tools that lie about the small shop or the objects and furniture that dominate the rooms of their apartment. By focusing on the minutiae of work and of domestic life, we get an immediate sense of the lives and the conflicts in their marriage.

From Mina’s pinched and stern face, her brusqueness to her husband and to the customers, we understand that it is a struggle to keep the business afloat. And in the reserved longing whenever Halim gazes at Youssef – and in how Mina responds to those silent exchanges – we also realise that the question of his sexuality has long been an unspoken tension between the couple.

Though the film is intimate in both its mise en scène and in its storytelling, Touzani’s trust that her audience is patient and perceptive – that we don’t need to be handfed information – is galvanising. In its dialogue and costuming, The Blue Caftan is clearly set in the contemporary world, but by keeping the focus so tightly on her three characters, Touzani imbues the story with a fable-like intensity that suggests that it could be set at any time. I was reminded of the short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer: Touzani recognises that the compromises and joys of married life, the yearnings and evasions of sex and desire, are not a creation of the modern. And as in Singer’s stories, faith and sex are not opposites but core to being human.

It is a real joy to watch a film in which the erotic dimensions of the characters’ lives are treated with adult sympathy. We understand Mina’s fear and anger about her husband’s homosexuality. In three scenes set in a hammam, we grasp how central a sexual life with men is for Halim. Yet we are never left in doubt about the couple’s devotion.

In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Mina asks Halim to accompany her to a cafe to watch a football game, one of the few moments where we see them outside work or home. Initially Halim is uncomfortable, aware of his wife being the only woman in the space. Mina leaps up at the scoring of a goal, an action that is met with derision by some of the men. Her defiance of their insults, and how she and Halim fall into shared laughter immediately afterwards, conveys their deep bond. In the next scene, they are stopped in the street by the military police and Mina is angered by Halim’s acquiescence. This startling moment illustrates the steely clarity that Touzani brings to her observations of her characters. We realise that Mina is frustrated by Halim’s passivity, but that it also functions as a protection for her in a society that is suspicious of a woman’s autonomy.

The chamber-ensemble element of The Blue Caftan – the director’s choice to concentrate so resolutely on the three characters – means that the casting is crucial. I was first impressed by Saleh Bakri in Elia Suleiman’s The Time that Remains (2009). In that film, part autobiography and part essay of the Palestinian struggle since the creation of the state of Israel, Bakri’s dignified and perfectly judged performance contributed immensely to its epic historic sweep.

He is a wonderful choice for Halim, as there is something almost old-fashioned in Bakri’s solemnity that accentuates the element of timeless parable. He is also phenomenally handsome: and I don’t mean that as an aside. Bakri’s beauty, his poise, is essential to The Blue Caftan if we are to believe that the younger Youssef falls in love with him. Halim’s good looks are what draws Youssef to him, but Bakri’s ability to wordlessly convey feeling makes us realise that for Youssef, the older man’s tenderness is a respite and a promise of security.

Initially I was uncertain of Missioui’s performance, which felt withdrawn. However, as the film’s emotional palette deepens, he reveals an inner resoluteness. Youssef has been working since he was a child and, although it is never made explicit, we glean that his sexuality has estranged him from his family. Mina discovers he has a toughness to match her own.

Possibly part of my reservation about Missioui’s performance arises from the one element of the script that seems schematic. It is suggested that Mina’s illness and acceptance of mortality leads her to accept the love between her husband and Youssef. Azabal’s performance is beautiful: she’s unafraid of Mina’s sometimes unsympathetic brittleness and sharpness. Our sense of Mina’s agitation and anger is crucial to the film’s effectiveness and counterpoints the gentle reverie of the scenes between the men. But the tension between her and Youssef is resolved too quickly, as if the filmmakers were unsure of how to write their confrontation. Even so, our trust in Azabal’s performance overcomes any doubts about the writing of this relationship. Her final scenes with Bakri are deeply moving.

The Blue Caftan is bracing in avowing the centrality of the erotic in our lives. This attention to the sensual is evident from the opening frames, as the camera follows the folds and fall of silk. In the luminosity she gives to fabrics and everyday objects, the warmth with which she imbues interiors, Virginie Surdej’s cinematography recalls the elegiac lighting and framing of Vittorio Storaro. The work of the Italian sensualists – Bertolucci, Visconti, Wertmüller – is a key influence on the filmmakers. There is also great power in how Touzani and her collaborators use the hammam and the medina – places that have long been the site of colonialist erotic imaginings – and affirm them as places of sensual pleasure for Moroccans.

Or maybe only for Moroccan men? The subtlety and acumen of Touzani’s filmmaking are poignantly revealed in The Blue Caftan’s closing moments. Throughout the film are recurring scenes of Mina at prayer. This refrain is a reminder of contradiction, of how Mina avowedly resists the patriarchal norms of her culture, while at the same time finding strength and succour in the rituals and beliefs of her faith. The final respects and devotion that Halim and Youssef pay to Mina are acknowledgements of such contradictions.

In a glorious wide shot, the film is suffused with light and for the first time we catch a glimpse of the world outside. This moment affirms the interdependence of the erotic and the sacred. And then there is a cut to Youssef and Halim sitting together in the same cafe where Mina stood up to shout out her defiance. They are side by side, smiling, while around them men of all ages are smoking, drinking their coffee and tea. Halim and Youssef, as they must, are hiding in plain sight.

The risk of the quietness of a film such as The Blue Caftan is that in shunning overstatement, its subtlety could be overlooked or misunderstood, or that the movie’s serenity might be mistaken for languor. However, the sheer intelligence of Touzani’s convictions and the thoughtfulness of her craft are the validation of her choices. Yes, it is quiet: but in honouring her characters and trusting her audience, Touzani’s voice is loud and clear. This film reverberates long after the closing credits.

The Blue Caftan opens in selected cinemas next month.

 

ARTS DIARY

BALLET Identity

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney, May 2-20

THEATRE Every Brilliant Thing

Theatre Royal, Hobart, May 4-6

THEATRE Looped

Holden Street Theatres, Adelaide, May 2-20

LITERATURE Melbourne Writers Festival

Wheelers Centre, Melbourne, May 4-7

EXHIBITION Yoshitomo Nara: Reach Out to The Moon, Even If We Can’t

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until June 25

LAST CHANCE

MULTIMEDIA Haunting

National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until April 30

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2023 as "Quiet passions".

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