Directed by Josh Appignanesi
The Infidel is the comedic story of Mahmud Nasir (Omar Djalili), Arabic-British citizen, a man who we Jews would refer to as a “reform” Muslim in his practice of faith. He has a family; a wife who wears trendy clothes and is obsessed with exercise, a young daughter who likes to play jihad with a toy sword, and an older son who is about to get married to his more strictly traditional girlfriend, as soon as he can get permission from her step-father, an Islamic extremist. Mahmud has just lost his mother, part of a somber tone that the film tries to include to balance the sometimes outlandish comedy. In the process of cleaning out her house, he encounters a stubborn black cab driver named Leonard Goldberg played wonderfully by The West Wing’s Richard Schiff, and finds adoption documents that lead him to finding out that his life as Muslim Mahmud Nasir actually began as Jew Solly Shimshillewitz.
A good part of the film has Mahmud trying to come to terms with his Jewish identity and finding his real parents, which leads him back to Leonard to try and learn more about Judaism. The irony, at least to this reviewer, is that Leonard is a stereotypical non-practicing Jew. He has a passing knowledge of common Yiddish phrases, supports the state of Israel, has tons of books on the holocaust and Fiddler on the Roof on VHS (although he taped over most of it with pornography) but has little else to teach Mahmud when it comes to holidays, prayers, history or the Torah itself. The two characters are actually a pretty good pair, but Leonard’s lack of knowledge is disappointing to see because there seems to be a genuine thirst for knowledge on Mahmud’s part. It’s a shame that the filmmakers themselves seemingly are lacking this thirst, because the entire film’s portrayal of Judaism is based on this surface impression that popular culture seems to have (though in a stroke of realism Artscroll’s edition of the Torah gets a nice close-up in a few scenes). Most Hassids in the film look more Amish than “Heimish”, with their lack of moustaches and a mismatched mode of dress that so many films seem convinced is accurate.
This reviewer cannot speak much on the accuracy of the portrayal of Muslim culture, though it certainly is given more dimensions on screen than Judaism is, by showing moderates, extremists, and those that are lax in practice of many kinds. A concept of Islam as only extremists spread through the western world since 2001, and this film certainly combats that through both comedy and drama. “Extreme”, Hassidic Jews however are shown as the vast majority of Judaism, with the only balance being a complete polar opposite in the form of secularized, bar mitzvah disco-ers. Seemingly the entirety of Judaism here is an Anglo-Judaism, perplexingly simplified and completely ignoring the Sephardi (Spanish) or Arabic Jews, a crossover aspect that could have been mined for more heart and interest here.
There is a political strain to the film which is unavoidable when dealing with Islamic-Jewish relations, most notably the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is addressed. At the rally where Mahmud burns a yarmulke he’s discovered to be secretly wearing, the crowd is predominantly white, middle-class college students. This is a sad truth witnessed firsthand and a subtlety that the filmmakers did get right. Also, in a scene at a bar mitzvah, Mahmud gets pressured into signing a petition to make the BBC correct their strong anti-Israel slant, stating that the state has a right to exist and assert its power. The comedy of the scene stems from us knowing how much he has been trained to hate Israel, something that many on both sides of the religious/political spectrum may be squirming in their seats while laughing at. Leonard himself is a staunch supporter of the state of Israel and a big conflict scene between he and Mahmud is hinged on this. Many of his early scenes are accompanied by a rendition of “Hatikvah”, the Israeli National Anthem. It comes as no surprise to find that Erran Baron Cohen, brother of Sacha (aka Borat aka Bruno aka Ali G), scored the film as he has done for his brother’s just as controversial films.
There is still ample silliness along the way, despite the many tightropes the film has to walk to not offend too many people. A scene of Mahmud telling a made up story about Rabbi Akiva at the bar mitzvah, Mahmud’s Imam thinking he is gay, a female friend in a burqa seen jogging or dancing, or a subplot about a missing 80’s pop star all come to mind. The Muslim and Jewish stars of the film say “Christ” consistently, raising questions about whether this is an intentional joke or a matter of popular current slang. The film’s problems come to the fore when it tries to balance all that with the dramatic arc taking place. There is a real struggle for this man who lost both sets of parents, and whether Jewish or Muslim he is a man that needs guidance. He wants what is best for his family, and is respectable for this very reason- even when hiding the truth from them. Yet we get a clichéd comedy-farce ending that completely crashes; a disappointing ending to a film with moments of promise. It has shades of the ending to Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison more than anything else, except sadly not as successful in humor or execution (Your personal view of that film will inform how much of an insult this truly is).
Surprisingly taken for granted here is the philosophy that one that is born a Jew is a lifetime Jew, or similarly with Islam. This is a point I found intriguing, considering how lax in practice most of the characters on screen are. The resulting message seems to be about striving for middle-ground acceptance no matter your religion, as long as it is from Abraham. The film, having originated in England, has gained international attention and screened recently in the states as part of the 2010 Tribecca Film Festival. Audiences of all races seem to find something they can laugh about, whether with a passing knowledge of Islam, Judaism or both. However, while many Arab countries have begun distributing the film, Israel has yet to make plans to bring it to its shores.
The Infidel is available now On Demand and in limited release in The U.S.
**1/2 Two and a Half Stars