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A healing treatment of love in its various forms: Maryam Touzani’s The Blue Caftan

Tuesday 30 May 2023, by Julie-Yara Atz

“It’s a love story” – this was the conclusion of an audience member after the screening of “Blue Caftan”, Maryam Touzani’s latest film, at the Garden Cinema in early May. And indeed, it is a love story, but quite a surprising and complex one, that explores love in its various forms. It leaves us wondering what can be considered love, pondering its intricacies, here portrayed without judgement. The three-dimensional characters are constantly trying to overcome their inner frictions, confront their fears and desires in order to be present for one another, in a way that is rarely portrayed on the big screen, and is quite healing to watch.

The film is carried by a wonderful trio of actors. Halim, the tailor, is played by a Saleh Bakri whose eyes have seen it all and carry enormous humanity, his silent physicality and his presence to his craft always gentle and precise. Mina, his wife and work partner who handles the shop, is played by a versatile Lubna Azabal in a highly relatable and multi-layered performance exploring Mina’s various struggles, pertaining to her illness, to the wider social context and to her endless love for her husband. This love manifests itself as loyalty, small moments of joy she creates for both of them, and in how confrontational she can be to people who aren’t acting respectfully. She doesn’t feel the need to respect hierarchy or the status quo. Youssef, the new apprentice is played by a soft and dignified Ayoub Missoui, giving a nuanced performance, a fine balance between toughness and innocence.

The storyline is as intimate as it is social: Halim (Saleh Bakri) is gay, and has been married to Mina (Lubna Azabal) for most of his life. He is very quiet about it, but from the get-go she seems to be aware, watching him interact with the new apprentice Youssef (Ayoub Missioui) with a tinge of jealousy. Is Youssef here to learn the craft or to get closer to Halim? It’s all in the silences, in what is left unsaid. We see the two of them work on complex embroideries, their hands touching and breaking apart in a way their bodies aren’t allowed to, through sensual close ups. When pink fabric disappears, Mina is quick to blame Youssef. Dynamics start to shift between them as Mina’s illness gets worse, leading to an emotional confrontation between Halim and Youssef.

There is a sensuality to the shots of Mina’s body shrinking with her illness, a pain we don’t look away from but that doesn’t obscure her fierceness. In an intimate scene with Halim, she reminds him of how proud she is to be his wife, and how pure and noble he is to her. “We often try to simplify it, but love is a complex feeling”, said Maryam Touzani, the director, during the q&a – a complexity she’s managed to portray with gentleness and subtlety. The film is filled with moments of intimacy, small moments of joy that keep our protagonists going, simple exchanges heavy with implicit meaning, support, loyalty… without ever erasing the pain and conflict. The same nuances can be found in the way tradition is portrayed, both as something to preserve and something to question, through the longevity of the caftans’s lifecycle and the immediacy of death and the way death is handled by society despite some people’s wishes. Death, here, encourages more life to come. It suggests both respect for human life and personal rebellion against traditions that don’t always make sense.

“Don’t be afraid of love” says Mina to Halim, an expression that beautifully summarises the film, which is committed and political in the best of ways – no wonder it won 11 awards, including the jury prize at the Marrakesh International Film Festival.

Julie-Yara is a filmmaker and actress. You can find out more about her work here.

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