Maryam Touzani’s second feature breaks major ground for Arab cinema with a bold, absorbing and heartbreaking ode to love.
For those familiar with Middle Eastern cinema, The Blue Caftan is quite the miracle. Breaking taboos and delivering a message of tolerance and acceptance while never falling into the trap of morally judging its characters, this is a film that deserves to be celebrated for its sheer audacity at a time when several Arab filmmakers are sticking more and more to conventional narratives in hopes of securing funding at a time that’s much more turbulent and less prone to risk taking.
Touzani’s second film, following her well-received debut feature ADM, is least concerned with appeasing local audiences who expect only certain templates of love relationships to be presented on screen. Same-sex relationships have long been presented in MENA cinema as cartoonish, morally damning and, in many cases, not even worthy of discussion. More than just a sensitive topic, in a region where religious values supercede any form of compassion or tolerance, this is a theme that’s long been shunned from screens in fears of ‘corrupting’ audiences or ‘altering’ their sexual identities (Netflix’s MENA version of ‘Perfect Strangers’ sparked endless debate earlier this year for similar reasons).
For years, LGBTQ characters have been depicted as evil, corrupt and laughably one-dimensional for the sole reason of warning audiences not to be ‘like them’. And here comes a film that simply remembers everyone is human first, while never trying to let a moral stance nor fear of censorship derail a gut-wrenching story that goes far beyond conventional notions.
Groundbreaking in themes but heartbreaking in its delivery, The Blue Caftan will probably not receive local showings across the region – it’s a miracle it’s been made in the first place – but nevertheless deserves to be seen and celebrated. Never taking a moral stance, this is exactly the kind of cinema that stirs debate, evokes discussion and sends an urgent reminder that cinema, just like life, is not about judgment – rather an understanding of the complexity of human emotions and desire.
While surely to be labeled as an LGBTQ film, The Blue Caftan is much more than that. This is a story that truly explores unconditional love and its absolute power. Love that, not only fulfills, but forgives, one that against all odds of sexual identities, compatibility and social norms, still survives and, better yet, thrives. The story is deceptively simple: a tailor (Halim, played by Saleh Bakri) and his wife (Mina, played by Lubna Azabel) lead a quiet life in one of Morocco’s low-class neighborhoods. Together they run the shop, designing caftans (the national attire) for women. But Halim has a secret – he is a closeted homosexual. But it’s a secret Mina very well knows, only everyone else can’t find out otherwise they’ll be shamed forever, lose their business and face imprisonment. The arrival of a young apprentice (Yousef, played by Ayoub Missioui) shatters Halim’s existence and awakens long-suppressed desires.
In tackling sexual supression in fascinating ways, Touzani brings out the best out of her incredible actors. As Halim, Bakri delivers a career-defining performance as a wounded man torn between two loves: that of his wife, his confidante and rock, and a forbidden love that has the potential to destroy his existence. Bakri’s fearless performance, in a role that has surely been turned down by other actors due to its nature, reminds us what it’s like to struggle to be true to oneself, to live in constant fear of being discovered, to shun love and conceal desire simply for the sake of those we love and can’t afford to hurt nor lose. It’s a fascinating dilemma that Bakri captures so brilliantly. His scenes are heartbreaking and completely believable, his eyes and tears speak volumes while dialogue is, rightfully so, sparse and rare.
Azabel is mesmerizing as Mina, the tailor’s wife who goes beyond acceptance of her husband’s true nature. She brings warmth, credibility and energy to the film in ways very few actresses could – her chemistry with Bakri sparks the film’s emotional core, leading us to follow a couple as they navigate and rise over incompatibility, shame and judgment to truly love one another in a world that’s increasingly unforgiving.
The film’s slow pace and deliberate restraint work perfectly: this is a film that is as quiet and contemplative as its characters, a story with no dramatic fireworks or over-the-top emotional breakdowns. And that rings so true. When Halim finally breaks free of his repression, his quiet, teary-eyed smile says it all.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.