Updated: Oct 17, 2022
Were it not for the wisdom and elegance of the dialogue in Maryam Touzani's The Blue Caftan, as judiciously employed as it is, one could almost get away with watching this movie with the sound off. It's a beautiful, intimate, emotionally potent romantic drama, and its story is told primarily through looking, watching and seeing. It's not just Touzani doing the seeing, it's her characters - she observes their gazes, and both the state of being seen visually and that of being seen emotionally. She rests on items too, and examines the nature of relationships between individuals, whether lasting or fleeting, and ties every single thing that occupies her attention directly to its personal association to her main characters. There's very little subtlety to the movie, but there's a remarkable level of nuance, and it emerges from every shot, from every moment, so integral is this nuance to the movie's very existence. For it is but a small snapshot of lives as full and as complex as any human life could be, and so these minute details are essential to expressing that fullness and complexity.
Technically, Touzani is sensitive to detail still, capturing specificities such as the influence on a scene of the particular quality of the light, or the cinematic interpolation of the space between characters. Sometimes that space is negated altogether by physical touch; The Blue Caftan recognizes the feeling of touching and the feeling of being touched, not just physically but, again, emotionally. It also lingers on processes, on work, acknowledging the necessity and, thus, the compassionate capacity of good work done well. It's a simple film in concept and in effect, yet the work that has clearly gone into the process of engendering such powerful simplicity is apparent to the astute viewer. I wasn't blown away by it, despite my immense respect for its myriad accomplishments, and maybe I'd have had a stronger reaction were all three of its central characters equally well-developed, whereas one of the trio is arguably used only to develop the other two, otherwise drifting in and out as he's required to. But these are minor complaints with a quietly major work.
I guess this is what I get for demanding something different. The long and short of it is that LFF 2022 has, at least until now, been a little lacking in distinctive, innovative original fare. And so it was with hope that I attended a screening of The Cloud Messenger, a movie apparently promising just what I was demanding: something different. To be sure, it delivers on its promise, but perhaps I ought to have stipulated a second, equally important demand: something good. Dialogue earnestly describing the death of a teenage girl as "an unfortunate drowning incident," blank-eyed line deliveries so bad one wonders if the actors were actually instructed to speak their lines wrong, day and night scenes alike shot in the same pallid off-white light - just about everything in this misbegotten movie is, indeed, different, and just about nothing in it is good. And I'm rarely one to complain about a movie's length, but this is a 60-minute max affair dragged out to nearly 150. Slow, uneventful scenes are needlessly elongated with unintentionally awkward pauses and corny, cringey poses; every last plot point is underlined once, twice, multiple times, then underlined once more in wannabe-mystical sequences with minimal impact, largely because their mystique has been all but obliterated by all that underlining. Fuck it, make that a 10-minute affair - The Cloud Messenger is a better movie the less of it you've had to endure, and thus a lesser movie with every excruciating passing minute.
Outside of its fantastical elements, which represent the absolute, clear peak of its creative achievements, there's no compelling artistry about this movie to speak of, and sometimes even no technical competency. People just occupy spaces, say words, stare straight ahead until the camera stops rolling - it's like a student film, just not by a film student, but by a misguided 13-year-old with access to too many filmmaking tools. There's no better example of its agonizing artlessness than the results of the laughable photography masterclasses its lead characters attend - these are the worst photos I've ever seen that weren't taken by either a drunk person or Brooklyn Beckham, yet they're presented to the viewer as unspeakably meaningful representations of pure artistic spirit. It's almost enjoyable in its awfulness, but it's just so boring it fails even to be that, so it's just increasingly aggravating. At least some bad movies commit to their badness; The Cloud Messenger wants to commit to being a great movie, and its resolute failure is a horrible, horrible chore.
I've written about Jafar Panahi's No Bears for Awards Watch, so I'll be brief here. Sometimes it can feel like Panahi's just making movies now to keep making movies, as noble as that is for someone in his circumstance; this is far more than just a placeholder, though. This is thoughtful, quietly profound cinema, and Panahi's directing is at its subtly innovative best - see how he depicts the acts of leaving or moving, travelling, preparing to leave, even just being elsewhere, and how he captures entrances and exits, passageways, borders of all kinds in all forms. See how he develops the idea of the image, as authenticating witness, and what that represents for this man at this time in this world. A very fine movie indeed.