A remote Algerian village is a surprisingly apt setting for “Masquerades,” tyro multihyphenate Lyes Salem’s accomplished comedy of manners, in which a careless drunken boast assumes a life of its own. Lively ethnic laffer deftly tosses matrimony, celebrity and narcolepsy into a potent brew with international appeal. A likable cast, a witty star turn by Salem, faultless staging and a neatly inflected pace contribute to a modest but sparkling romp that has racked up several fest prizes and met with unusual success in its home region and in Gaul. Wider distribution is not impossible.
Like a character out of Moliere, Munir (Salem) possesses one tragicomic flaw: an overwhelming need to lord it over his fellow-men. He basks in the villagers’ appreciation of his position as “horticultural engineer” until they discover it means “part-time gardener.”
Though a loving husband to Habiba (Rym Takoucht), an affectionate father to Amine (Merouane Smirli) and a protective brother to his gorgeous but narcoleptic sister Rym (Sarah Reguieg), Munir would sell his soul — and almost does — to appear successful. But, he lacks a prestigious job and hasn’t been able to marry off sis.
One night, Munir drunkenly claims he has found a rich husband for Rym, but, unknown to Munir, she has fallen in love with Munir’s best friend, Khliffa (limber comic scarecrow Mohamed Bouchaib). Miffed with Khliffa’s failure to declare their love, however, Rym impulsively corroborates Munir’s lie about the rich finance.
Munir soon becomes the toast of the town, consulted, deferred to and even accepting bribes for illusory political influence.
The socioeconomic reality of the region, its endemic under employment and resulting male disempowerment, clearly fuel Munir’s self-aggrandizement. But there is something Borat-like in the joyous enthusiasm with which he flaunts his braggadocio.
If the men’s values are skewed by powerlessness, the women come off as flat-out magnificent. It may not be P.C. to make fun of narcolepsy, but when servicing the slapstick requirements of thoughtful — even socially conscious — comedy, the joke has much less to do with real illness than with classically executed farce.