Despite the familiarity of its tale about recriminations, revelations and reconciliations during a family gathering for a funeral, “Rock the Casbah” is consistently engaging and frequently amusing, largely due to the vivid performances by a strong cast, fleet pacing by writer-director Laila Marrakchi (“Marock”), and some sharp observations about the role of women in an upper-class milieu torn between Muslim traditions and Western influences. This attractively mounted French-Moroccan co-production should travel widely on the global fest circuit, and possibly attract simpatico femme ticketbuyers in far-flung international markets.
Omar Sharif — who’s appropriately acknowledged in the credits for his “exceptional participation” — suggests a tone of magical realism during the pic’s opening minutes, as he playfully introduces himself to the audience as Moulay Hassan, a recently deceased industrialist who’s eagerly awaiting the gathering of his clan for three days of mourning at his palatial villa in Tangiers. With a beaming smile and a courtly stride, Hassan offers to serve as a combination narrator and master of ceremonies, in the manner of those who hosted public movie screenings — and repeatedly warned audiences not to take anything they see too seriously — ages ago in Morocco.
Sharif makes such a winning impression as Hassan during this prologue, it’s actually disappointing that the role turns out to be little more than a sporadic cameo. Even so, Marrakchi makes clever use of the iconic actor as comic relief whenever the plot threatens to turn too soap-operatic. That threat arises with increasingly frequency after the midway point, after a first half that plays more like a comedy of manners.
After hearing of her father’s death, Sofia (Morjana Alaoui), the youngest of three Hassan daughters, reluctantly returns to the family estate after years of working in the US as an actress. (Quite often, it’s pointedly noted, she’s typecast as a terrorist in “24”-style thrillers.) Accompanied by her bratty young son, Sofia struggles to tamp down lingering ill feelings toward her late father while comforting Aicha (Hiam Abbass), her determinedly stoic mother.
But Sofia’s dutiful return is viewed as a profoundly mixed blessing by two older sisters: brassy and blunt-spoken Miriam (Nadine Labaki), who has undergone surgical enhancement to reignite her distant husband’s ardor, and bespectacled schoolteacher Kenza (Lubna Azabal), who’s just a tad too eager to emphasize her own marital contentment. Alternately envying and mocking Sofia’s comparative freedom, Miriam and Kenza vacillate between nostalgia and reproach as they interact with their prodigal sibling.
Gradually, the conversation turns to a fourth sister, who left Morocco years earlier and eventually committed suicide after her ill-fated affair with Zakaria (Adel Bencherif, “A Prophet”), the broodingly hunky son of Yacout (Fatima Harrandi, aka Raouia), the family’s long-time nanny/housekeeper. Hassan strongly disapproved of this taboo relationship, but not entirely for the reasons the surviving sisters assume.
“Rock the Casbah” is at its most engaging when the well-cast three sisters are doing nothing more (or less) dramatic than comparing and contrasting their lives, often using language that shocks traditionalists of all ages in their orbit. (Note how a young cashier is appalled by Miriam’s reference to her “boob job.”) It’s clear Marrakchi intends these siblings — even the conservative Kenza — to represent, if not a rising tide of feminism, then a growing discontentment with the status quo. All of which adds additional urgency to a late-breaking subplot involving a paternalist heir who intends to supersede Aicha and her daughters as administrator of Hassan’s estate.
Amid a first-rate ensemble, Raouia is a standout by sheer dint of her striking expressions — she has the piercing stare of a silent-movie scene-stealer — while Alaoui traverses a tricky character arc with grace and conviction. As indicated above, Sharif leaves the audience wanting more. But, then again, perhaps Marrakchi figured that if she gave him more screen time, he might fold the pic into his pocket and jauntily stroll away with it.
Production values are aces across the board.