Among the most interesting surprises of the Medfilm Festival taking place in Rome in early November are the two Oscar-nominated films for Tunisia and Morocco respectively. Both made a pass at Cannes, the first at the Quinzaine, the second at Un certain regard.
Under the Fig Trees, Erige Sehiri’s second film, is a story of sisterhood, struggle against patriarchy in its broadest sense, and generational conflict, all told in the park of a beautiful Tunisian orchard, of Rohmerian memory. It is a film of small gestures and small glances, which maintains the rhythm of the documentary on which the director cut her teeth with Railway Men. The agricultural setting suggests that these are people stuck in the past, similar to the protagonists of the Shamalayan The Village. The girls wait for their boss together, showing how gender norms still prevail. When the boss arrives, they pile onto the bus. Although the women seem progressive and liberal, full of freedom as they flirt with their male colleagues, they are also trapped by old romantic notions, distant from the world of old women, sorting figs in side baskets. The cast consists of non-professionals.
The revolution of the women working under the fig tree – also used as a sexual metaphor – is not a violent or revolutionary act but the acceptance of a general honesty about what happens in the shade of those trees.
Love as the engine of the world
Maryam Touzani’s Le Bleu du Caftan, on the other hand, written with her husband Nabil Ayouch, is set in the present day in one of Morocco’s oldest medinas, where a couple in their fifties, Halim (Saleh Bakri, recently seen in Amira and Costa Brava, Lebanon) and Mina (Lubna Azabal, who also receives a lifetime achievement award at the MED), run a traditional caftan shop and struggle to meet customer demands.
To cope with the orders, they decide to take on a young apprentice, Youssef (Ayoub Messioui). In particular, the sewing of a blue caftan is the most valuable order, which requires enormous effort to complete. The two lead a quiet and modest existence of small joys, such as eating tangerines or taking a walk together. Meanwhile, we see Youssef show a genuine interest in his work and a growing affection for Halim, who seems to believe in his abilities. Mina, however, is sceptical and even accuses him of stealing pink satin from the laboratory.
The bond between Halim and Youssef grows stronger and gradually involves Mina, whose health seems to be in serious danger, leading to an emotional closing of the story arc, which raises important questions about the nature of love as the engine of the world.