In the “age of terror”, fear and suspicions over foreign peoples and cultures seem to be the order of the day. The media is filled with ludicrous hysteria over “terror mosques”, “Mossad hit teams” and whether or not President Obama is a “secret Muslim”. Among the know-it-all ignorant, lines are drawn and sides taken as they solemnly declare “the Muslims are coming to kill us” or “the Jews rule the world”. However, in The Reluctant Infidel (or just The Infidel as it was originally titled), we are dared to break taboos and cross boundaries in search of the ultimate in irony and hilarity. Directed by Josh Appignanesi (Song of Songs) and written by English comedian David Baddiel, the film has a cunningly absurd premise: a British Muslim man discovers he is actually, of all things, Jewish. Brilliant!
What transpires is an existential identity crisis of biblical proportions as Mahmud Nasir, played by Omid Djalili (The Mummy, The Omid Djalili Show), a pretty ordinary and not terribly religious British Muslim man with a foul mouth and a penchant for strange 80s rock music, discovers that he was adopted, and that by birth he is (shock horror!) Jewish. His birth name was not Mahmud Nasir but Solly Shimshillowitz. Unable to break the news to his wife Saamiya, played by Archie Panjabi (A Good Year), she begins to grow suspicious that Mahmud might be hiding things from her. But wait, there’s more! Mahmud’s son is engaged, and his fiancée’s new stepfather is coming to visit – only the stepfather is the fire-breathing radical cleric Arshad al-Masri, played by Yigal Naor (Green Zone), who has come to the UK under intense controversy to denounce Zionism and Western culture among other things. Shocked and awed by the untimely revelation of his newfound Jewishness, Mahmud comes to look for advice and guidance from Jewish-American cabbie Lenny Goldberg, played by Richard Schiff (The West Wing), who gives him a hilarious crash course on “being Jewish”, on everything from Jewish angst to touching on the finer points of saying “Oy vey”.
From here the situation grows even more complicated for poor Mahmud, and the film is all the funnier for it. The humour in The Reluctant Infidel is actually quite dry, relying on clever dialogue and some great comedic acting from Djalili and Schiff. Much better known for his small slapstick roles, Djalili really shines as the lead in the film, and manages to put on a well rounded and surprisingly touching performance as the story itself grows more emotional and serious. Despite a tense setup, however, the climactic moment of the film felt disappointingly weak as the dialogue lacked punch. It doesn’t quite come together as satisfyingly as it should have.
The exception to this is Mahmud’s final outburst at the intolerant loony fringes of religions, shouting with defiant exasperation that “they make shit up!” I, for one, cannot think of a better one-line rebuttal to the ideological fanatics of the day. Although they’re probably the least likely people to watch this film, the rest of us can take heart in charming little comedies like The Reluctant Infidel that stress our commonalities and make our differences something to laugh about.