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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Director and co-writer Maryam Touzani laces The Blue Caftan with so many metaphors that it’s difficult to describe its plot or sequences without succumbing to analytical paralysis. Yet this is precisely what one should avoid when engaging with this incredibly delicate film. Touzani’s account of an unconventional love story—among a closeted Moroccan tailor, Halim (Saleh Bakri), his wife, Mina (Lubna Azabal), and their new apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Missioui)—is best experienced by simply wallowing in the lushness of its fabrics, sartorial and symbolic alike, refusing the temptation to unspool its poetic parallels.
Halim and Mina run a caftan shop in the medina in Salé. Halim is a maalem, an expert seamster who works at his own pace. Which means he’s “not a machine,” as Mina tells one customer who’s eager to have her order completed. Halim refuses to use a sewing machine, granting his garments the kind of attention and labor that Renaissance painters bestowed on their artworks.
But in order not to completely alienate their clients, the orders need to be finished in some sort of timely fashion. Which is why Halim and Mina hire Youssef, who proves to be a dependable and gifted apprentice, and who becomes smitten with Halim and his delicate mode of instruction. This attraction seems to be mutual but not the willingness to act on it.
One of the most fascinating and daring aspects of The Blue Caftan is the role that Touzani gives to the figure of the heterosexual woman in the relationship between men who desire each other despite everything. Mina, who’s terminally ill, and whose pain is precisely located on her back, works at once as a repressive agent and a facilitator of Halim and Youssef’s desire. Youssef ultimately becomes the trigger for an apprenticeship that all of these characters share. For all of the film’s allegorical lines having to do with dress-making, such as “if you cut too much, there’s no going back,” or “iron all you want, it won’t fall right,” it’s Mina’s piece of advice to Halim that most vividly and succinctly captures the core of this apprenticeship: to not be afraid to love.