Quelle surprise! Maryam Touzani’s second feature, The Blue Caftan [+], penned with her husband, Nabil Ayouch, and screening in the Un Certain Regard sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival, is certainly one of the most impressive titles at this year’s edition.
The action is set in the present day in one of Morocco’s oldest medinas, where a couple of fifty-somethings, Halim (Saleh Bakri, recently seen in Amira and Costa Brava, Lebanon [+]) and Mina (Lubna Azabal), run a traditional caftan shop and struggle to meet their customers’ demands. To keep up with the orders, they decide to hire a young apprentice, called Youssef (Ayoub Messioui). The sewing of a blue caftan in particular is the order of the highest value, requiring huge efforts to be completed.
We follow the couple’s lives both inside and outside of the shop. They lead a quiet, modest existence, made up of small joys, such as eating tangerines or taking a stroll together. Meanwhile, we see Youssef showing genuine interest in his job and exhibiting a growing affection towards Halim, who seems to believe in his skills. Mina, however, is sceptical and even accuses him of having stolen some pink satin from the workshop.
With great tact and sweetness, we start digging deeper into their souls. The bond between Halim and Youssef becomes stronger, and it gradually involves Mina as well, whose health seems to be at serious risk. Overcoming long-hidden fears and repressed desires becomes a central theme, and Touzani and Ayouch’s writing, rich in truth and sympathy, allows it to emerge beautifully.
Technically speaking, Touzani’s film is impeccable. Virginie Surdej’s highly atmospheric cinematography does an outstanding job of playing with the chiaroscuros and tiny spaces of the workshop, the medina’s streets and the couple’s apartment. Bodies and faces are also filmed with exceptional sensitivity, adding much credibility and intensity to the picture’s most intimate scenes. The colour palette is made up mostly of “sandy” colours – light brown, coffee, ochre and dark yellow – which fits in with the earthy nature of this work and creates a pleasant visual contrast with the blue of the caftan and the bright shades of the other costumes that the characters sew in their workshop.
The closure of the narrative arc is a whirlwind of emotions. This story of love, death and fear tugs at the viewers’ heartstrings through dry dialogue, a controlled mise-en-scène and excellent performances. Bakri plays a fragile man torn apart by love and affection, as well as by past and present; Azabal paints the touching portrait of a strong, understanding woman; and Messioui constructs a compelling character whose looks and gestures speak for themselves.
All in all, Touzani’s sophomore feature is a brave film made with love and simplicity. It prompts important questions about what love is, how it can be expressed and why it is the driving force of our very existence. Hopefully, this great film will get the recognition it deserves on the festival circuit and beyond.
The Blue Caftan was produced by France’s Les Films du Nouveau Monde, Denmark’s Snowglobe, Belgium’s Velvet Films and Morocco’s Ali n’ Productions. Its international sales have been entrusted to Films Boutique.