Film Review: The Infidel

The Infidel is a comedy whose subject matter includes Muslims, Jews, cultural identity, religious intolerance, clerical hypocrisy, political islamism, violent extremism, anti-semitism, media mendacity and plain old-fashioned racism. Upon its release on DVD earlier this month, Hicham Yezza reviews it.

Arts & Culture, Features, Film & TV - Posted on Saturday, August 28, 2010 18:23 - 0 Comments

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By Hich Yezza

The most interesting thing to have happened to The Infidel, a comedy whose subject matter includes Muslims, Jews, cultural identity, religious intolerance, clerical hypocrisy, political islamism, violent extremism, anti-semitism, media mendacity and plain old-fashioned racism, is how little fuss it has generated from those quarters that, we’re told, are hypersensitive to “offensive” material. (The second most interesting thing to have happened to it, incidentally, is that screening rights were bought by a host of Middle Eastern countries, with the one notable exception of Israel).

In one regard, this seeming lack of a response could be viewed as a major failure of the project, as the result of a bland, safe handling of the themes. On the other hand, it might be interpreted as the sign of a perfectly executed comic turn: where every potential bump on the road is flawlessly redeemed by its own humourous coating.

But which interpretation is closer to the truth?

The Infidel in question is Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili), a businessman from the East End who, though hardly the most observant of Muslims, nonetheless shares a solid attachment to his faith, or so he’d like to think. He may not be that devout in his daily actions, but he is a true Muslim “in [his] heart”, as he puts it to his son Rashid (Amit Shah).

The plot is powered by two dramatic set-ups: first, Mahmud learns that his son wants to marry Uzma (Soraya Radford), which is fine by him, except for the fact that Uzma’s father is Arshad El Masri (Yigal Naor), a virulent loudmouth preacher clearly (and, in my view, rather lazily) modelled on the Abu Hamza/Omar Bakri model.

At the same time Mahmud discovers, after his mother’s recent death, that he was in fact adopted, which is also fine, except that his original birth name turns out to be Solly Shimshillewitz, meaning he, Mahmud the Muslim everyman, is actually Jewish.

Now, as a premise for a political/cultural comedy, David Baddiel, who wrote the script, has come up with something potentially very interesting. The number of angles and issues to explore is limitless, the obvious one being what a sense of fixed inalienable identity actually means. The question of course is: how do you set the dramatic clockwork in motion without spending your time looking over your shoulder for potential political/cultural faux pas?

The solution opted for by Badiel, who is Jewish, is to actually make a film about Jewishness that happens to feature a sprinkling of mostly polite, rather clichéd vignettes on Muslims. In itself, this choice is fine; indeed, it is indirectly responsible for the film’s best performance, that of Richard Shiff (of The West Wing) who plays Lenny Goldberg, Mahmud’s American-Jewish neighbour. Lenny, upon learning Mahmud’s “real” identity turns from cantankerous nemesis to cultural mentor in all things Jewish (and in the process gives Baddiel free rein to indulge in lots of Woody Allen-tinged misanthropic angst).

In terms of plot evolution, twists and dénouement, the Infidel follows a well-trodden, well-tested formula. In terms of the humour, some jokes work better than others. The comic routines of public speaking misshaps, mistaken identity, incongruous juxtapositions (omid jalili in tights anyone?) and straighforward slapstick all get a look in. Often enough, the influence on Baddiel of the great American Jewish comedy tradition, from Lenny Bruce to Larry David, is very evident, generally to the film’s benefit.

Should you see it? If you’re hoping for a subversive, stinging take on the 21st century’s obsession with demonising Muslims, then this is not the film for you. If you’re more in search of a lighthearted, boisterous comedy played out on a faintly “cultural” canvass, then this should keep you happy.

Of course, to judge this film on its politics (or lack of them) would be to miss the point. As its producer, Arvind Ethan David, told Ceasefire in an interview a few days ago (to be published in the Autumn print issue), the lack of a major negative brouhaha over the movie’s potentially incendiary topics was clearly indicative, in his eyes, of the fact that the audience understood this was a movie that aimed primarily to entertain (and is handsomely returning the favour, the Infidel DVD is currently riding high in the Amazon comedy charts).

Those wanting an irreverent satire on the West’s relationship with Islam, (and who felt Chris Morris’ ‘Four Lions’ didn’t totally hit the spot either) will have to wait a bit longer. As David explained in that same interview, The Infidel‘s guiding mission was to “entertain”, and in this regard, it is indeed, a well-made, light-hearted and, often enough, a very funny film indeed.

The Infidel(2010)
Cert (UK): 15
Runtime: 105 mins
Director: Josh Appignanesi

Hich Yezza is the editor of Ceasefire Magazine. His interview with Arvind Ethan David, producer of The Infidel will be published soon.

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