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Made to Measure

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Courtesy of TIFF

MOVIE REVIEW
The Blue Caftan (2022)

Now this is cinema. It’s a small movie, with a slow pace, focused on watching three people think their thoughts and say very little of what they are actually thinking. It’s set in a place most people have heard of – Casablanca – but in a world most people haven’t – the workshop of a master craftsman (a maâlem) who embroiders caftans by hand. In Moroccan culture, caftans made by a maâlem are a treasured possession designed to last the lifetime of the wearer, or even passed from mother to daughter in a way that perhaps only christening gowns are in the West. (One customer mentions her caftan was a gift from her husband on the birth of their first son, 50 years ago.) Or at least they were. Times being what they are, hardly anyone is interested in buying something designed to last forever anymore. But a movie like “The Blue Caftan” makes a beautiful, enchanting case for always taking your time.

Halim (Saleh Bakri) has spent his life in Casablanca’s medina, sitting on a low stool in the back of his shop and carefully embroidering the designs that have earned him the maâlem title. His wife, Mina (Lubna Azabal), handles the bookkeeping and works the shop counter, negotiating with their suppliers and schmoozing customers into choosing the perfect lengths and style of cloth. The order book is keeping them busy, but customers no longer have any patience, so the pressure is always on. On top of that neither of them are as young as they were, so an apprentice is needed to help keep things going, though it’s not work most people are interested in. Fortunately one is found, who quickly takes to the work; his name is Youssef (Ayoub Missioui) but Mina doesn’t take to him and becomes a surprisingly harsh boss. Halim listens to Mina’s edicts and doesn’t say much. Maybe once a week, he goes to the local steam bath; he rents a private stall in which, occasionally, another man joins him.

It’s shocking only in what it shows instead of tells, a style of filmmaking that seems to be disappearing along with similar movies made for and by adults (thanks heavens for venues such as the Toronto International Film Festival). Writer-director Maryam Touzani knows how people who have spent their lives together don’t necessarily need to talk in order to understand each other, and how silence is a power that can support or crush you. Halim’s secret desires are not as secret as he would like them to be, but as long as nothing is said everything is able to carry on. The trouble is time lets nothing stand still. Mina is not well, and struggling to stay on top of her work, which means they are losing money they can barely spare. And Youssef, well. It turns out he has some secret desires of his own.

Ms. Azabal brings an unusual bravery to the part – she is a woman who has done the best she could and never whined about it, even though her life has not lived up to her hopes and caused her a lot of pain. Mr. Bakri is even better as someone who has had to choke on his feelings his entire life, who has therefore diverted his energies into the relentless physical labor needed for his level of skills – do you know how much your hands can cramp after repetitive sewing movements for 10 hours a day? Much less over a lifetime? As with Halim’s work, “The Blue Caftan” is not going to be appreciated by everyone. But close attention will reward you with a loving, thoughtful movie. If you know how to watch it, you’ll enjoy it for a very long time.

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