'The Blue Caftan' - London Film Festival review

'The Blue Caftan' is the sophomore feature by Maryam Touzani, written in collaboration with and produced by Touzani's real-life husband and filmmaker Nabil Ayouch -- and the pair represents the dream couple of MENA cinema.
'The Blue Caftan' - London Film Festival review

In the Salé Medina, Halim (played by Palestinian star Saleh Bakri) and Mina (the extraordinary Lubna Azabal) own and run a traditional caftan shop, and keep secrets. Their love is a platonic one, like two best friends who have chosen to be together at the expiration of a pact. "If I'm not married by age 30, you and I are getting married, OK?" That kind of thing. Only these two don't live in America, the secret between them is that Halim is homosexual (or better bisexual) and this is Morocco -- a mostly conservative Muslim country. While it is not easy to be LGBTQ in any society, when it comes to Islamic countries ruled by Sharia law, it becomes downright perilous. Enter the young apprentice Youssef (the newcomer Ayoub Massioui in his breakout role) and things get even more complicated.

Mina, it turns out, is hiding her own secret, as she's stopped receiving treatment for her aggressive form of breast cancer. She has decided to accept her fate, her "mektoub", destiny, whatever the outcome. If the story sounds heartbreaking so far, it is.

The Blue Caftan is the sophomore feature by Maryam Touzani, written in collaboration and produced by Touzani's real-life husband and filmmaker Nabil Ayouch. This pair represents the dream couple of MENA cinema, a sort of untouchable duo which produce golden works that screen in festivals and win critics' awards. In fact, The Blue Caftan walked away with the International Federation of Film Critics - FIPRESCI prize for Un Certain Regard in Cannes, where the film world premiered.

In the credits, the Festival de Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux is thanked and the film has been selected to represent Morocco in the Best International Feature Film category at the Oscars this year. It has also already received reviews in all the international trades, something nearly unheard for an Arab title, as well as having been written up in a record three features for Variety. I wouldn't be surprised if it ticked all the boxes for achieving an actual nomination -- considering that the press around it has made it unavoidable for Academy voters.  Or even win the Oscar.... Inshallah.

Yet, I can't figure out if I'm a fan, or if the film leaves me wanting for more.

There are moments of great brilliance in The Blue Caftan, starting with its nod in the title to the 1935 erotic novella by Georges Bataille Le bleu du ciel -- in French the title of the film is Le Bleu du Caftan and Halim's character shares some striking similarities with Henri in the book.

A scene between Halim and Mina inside a Medina tea shop, the Moroccan equivalent of a pub totally filled with male customers only, watching a football match, is both funny and touching, while beautifully shot and acted. And a dance moment next to the window of the couple's home, with Youssef joining the couple, is so perfectly placed in the narrative that I took out my tissues. And used them.

Music is queen in this film, and the caftan is king, so you know I loved every minute of watching it.

However, there are a couple of things that, nearly 24 hours after first watching the film at the BFI London Film Festival, I still haven't stopped thinking about. The first one, and I know I'm not alone in this, is why cast Bakri as a Moroccan man? Saleh Bakri is probably the most awesome Arab actor alive today, his work in this film is top notch as ever, and I can totally understand that any and all MENA filmmakers in this day and age immediately think of him when casting a role. But he clearly struggles with the North African Arabic, even in those few lines he utters, and he is Saleh Bakri. To some of us who have known and loved his work since the first precious moments we watched him in the works of Annemarie Jacir and Elia Suleiman, he is a face that is undetachable from the Palestinian struggle, even if he's been used to some degree of success in recent world cinema. One has to wonder, are there no wonderfully complex actors from the Maghreb, and why not play a gamble on them? Think of it in European terms, it's like an Italian playing a Frenchman -- it can be done, it has been done but it keeps taking you out of the reality of the film, at least it does that to me.

The second trouble spot, and I'm probably alone in this one, is a scene towards the end of the film that feels overly dramatic, filmed with a Western audience in mind, and even more geared towards the Academy voters and festival programmers. Again, not a deal breaker for the film, which still manages to work within its full package, but personally I struggle with this vision of women as victims and martyrs, awaiting to be redeemed by their husbands' touch. I find Halim's homosexuality dealt with masterfully in the film, but this aspect of Mina's illness become problematic to me in that scene and the image is now stuck in my mind -- like when you see a loved one on their deathbed and can only remember them there. All the joy and creativity of the film, the beautiful moments of fun shared between these three unlikely companions on the road of life, are erased for me in that one shot. My mind goes back to that image and that image alone.

Costumes by Rafika Benmaimoun, set design by Rachid El Youssfi, sound by Nassim El Mounabbih and the cinematography by Virginie Surdej are all noteworthy and exceptional "accessories" to the success of The Blue Caftan.

Finally, I was fascinated by the answer Touzani gave in her press kit when asked about whether she used the work of and shot a real life maalem, a traditional caftan craftsman, making the namesake blue caftan in the film. I will leave you with her beautiful words.

"Yes. His name is Mr. Lalaami. In the film, we follow the making of the caftan from the initial fabric cut to the final result. I looked for this specific shade of blue everywhere, for along time. It was an obsession. I found all kinds of different blue hues but not my petrol-blue, it became a dizzying quest... Fortunately, I ended up finding it at the Marché Saint-Pierre in Paris’ cloth district. Then I turned my research to embroidery, to find the right design. But I simply couldn’t find what I was looking for. Then, one day, I took out my mother’s caftan – a fifty-year-old piece of garment that I keep like a treasure – and that’s when I realized that the embroidery I was looking for was that one... I took my caftan to the maalem and told him it was the motif he had to sew. The caftan that had left such a mark on me during my childhood has found its place, it all made so much sense. Mr. Lalaami was thus able to start making the caftan and coaching the actors. It was important for me to make sure they had a true understanding of the craft, that they learn how to handle the needle and thread, that they spend time with true maalems to experience things first-hand..."

Because ultimately, The Blue Caftan will make you yearn for a precious one of your own -- whether it be love, life or a beautiful garment.

France, Morocco, Belgium, Denmark/122 minutes/2022

Dir: Maryam Touzani

Writ: Maryam Touzani, in collaboration with Nabil Ayouch

Prod: Nabil Ayouch

Co-Prod: Amine Benjelloun

Cinematography: Virginie Surdej

Editor: Nicolas Rumpl

Sound: Nassim El Mounabbih

Cast: Lubna Azabal, Saleh Bakri and Ayoub Massioui

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