The first feature film of Lyès Salem, Masquerades is a lighthearted and quirky comedy about an Algerian gardener, Mounir Mekbek, who dreams of a life beyond the confines of his sleepy village. His arrogance combined with his “responsibility” for a narcoleptic younger sister, Rym, make him the laughingstock of his community. He is a misunderstood dreamer who has aspirations, but can’t quite seem to pull himself together to meet the goals he has set for himself. He blames his humiliation on his sister’s illness and dreams of using the prospect of finding a good match for her to improve his standing in his village.
Following an incident at a wedding, an inebriated Mounir declares to the entire village that he has promised Rym to the wealthy foreigner. As a means of damage control, the family leaves town, in order to return and state that Rym was not interested in the gentleman. However, in order to motivate her sweetheart, Khliffa, to propose to her, Rym declares her intentions to marry the stranger.
Thus, the entire village becomes involved in the exciting lie as everyone wants to be a part of, not only planning the wedding, but the new fortune of the Mekbek family. Salem does a great job of portraying the views and reactions of the village, as well as the aspirations of the other villagers. It becomes evident that Mounir was not ridiculed for his sister, or lack of material wealth, but because of his haughty attitude towards his neighbours. Mounir is swept away in the newfound respect that he earns for commanding the regard of such a highly regarded foreigner. The introduction of the wealthy foreigner is an effective device to show the hypocrisy, but ultimately the desire Mounir has to make a better life for his wife, son, and sister.
The female cast definitely makes the movie more powerful. The character who shines the most is Habiba, Mounir’s wife, played by Rym Takoucht. She sees right through Mounir’s cocky façade, and brings him back to reality from his schemes to gain respect from the village. Her relationship with Mounir represents the realities that she has had to face, despite having been very in love with him at the time of their courtship. I was grateful that the film did not depict her as a bitter hag, but as a woman who is discontented in a sense, but keeps her family grounded in reality. Their relationship provided an interesting parallel to the courtship of Rym and Khliffa. I became disappointed towards the end of the film, because the lie about the wealthy foreigner simply goes away, and Rym ends up with Khliffa, thus providing a clean and happy ending.
Overall, I really enjoyed this film, and I thought it was a great depiction of the restlessness that comes with wanting something more in the face of socioeconomic hardship—something that I feel that many can relate to. It was also refreshing to watch a film in which an Islamic community was not depicted as the barbaric site of oppression of women, but rather showed the complex nuances of life in a small village in a changing world.