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The Blue Caftan, Morocco’s official entry for 2023 Academy Award consideration, opens on its titular character. As credits appear, the camera slowly grazes over blue silk—a petroleum blue, not royal, as caftan crafter Halim (Saleh Bakri) tells a pushy customer. Moroccan director Maryam Touzani gives the eponymous fabric a delicate, almost erotic treatment, setting the tone for the rest of her stunning second feature film.
Halim and his wife Mina (Lubna Azabal) live in Salé, a commuter town opposite Morocco’s capital, where they run a caftan shop in the city’s medina. Halim learned how to be a maleem, a traditional tailor, from his father. But their craft is threatened by the pace of sewing machines, which Halim refuses to use. Customers are impatient, and money is tight.
So the couple hire Youssef (Ayoub Missioui), a dashing young tailor-in-training, to help. Mina isn’t thrilled by his presence. She’s suspicious that he’ll leave as soon as he lands a better-paying job. She’s suspicious that he’s stealing silk from the shop. And, after walking in on her husband staring at Youssef’s naked back as he changes into a sweater, she’s suspicious that he’ll threaten their marriage.
On that last count, she might be right. It’s not long before the audience observes Halim’s routine of visiting a hammam, a traditional bathhouse, where he discreetly escapes into a private bathing room with another man.
Here, the audience might think it’s seen this movie before: The closeted gay man falls in love with his handsome apprentice, which allows him to finally live his truth. Right?
Real life, though, is much more complicated than the movies, and Touzani knows it. Yes, there’s undeniable chemistry, maybe even love, between Youssef and Halim, which they are able to indulge as they bond over their passion for the same craft. But there’s also profound love between Halim and Mina, even if their relationship lacks reciprocated sexual attraction. They snicker together like teenagers and dance together like best friends. As the audience pieces together that Mina is sick, the depths of Halim’s love for her become clearer. He washes her hair, feeds her tangerines, exasperatedly argues with doctors, insisting that there must be something they can do.
As Mina’s condition worsens, Youssef brings his helping hand to Halim and Mina’s home. Together, they find moments of joy through music and meals, and the complicated bonds that blossom between all three of them form a breathtaking portrait of love in all its messy forms.
Like the blue caftan that we see Halim return to again and again as his life unravels, Touzani’s film is arresting in its beauty. The tight, claustrophobic walls that distinguish Salé’s medina complement the film’s tight, intimate shots. The bustling walled city, a feature found across Morocco, also serves to embody the clash between tradition and transgression that The Blue Caftan has on its mind.
Homosexuality, which remains illegal in Morocco, is only a part of that transgression. Mina, faced with her own mortality, also challenges social norms. One of the film’s most delightful scenes occurs when she insists on visiting a coffee shop only frequented by men, and squeals in delight when a goal is scored in a soccer game—by the team everyone is rooting against.
Mina’s willingness to defy expectations is what empowers her, however difficult it may be, to love Halim unconditionally. Although he can’t return his wife’s love exactly as she gives it, Halim ultimately honors her in the best way he knows how.
The Blue Caftan plays at 2 p.m. on March 19 and 9 p.m. on March 21 as part of the New African Film Festival, which runs from March 17 to 30 at AFI Silver Theatre. silver.afi.com. Back for its 19th year, 2023’s NAFF features 30 films from 22 countries—including six U.S. premieres. $13 per movie, passes $130–$150.