Sunday, December 4, 2016

East End Identity Crisis: The Infidel (2010)

Archie Panjabi, Omid Djalili and Amit Shah in The Infidel (2010).

"Look not at what a man has done, but what he hopes to do."
– Mahmud's four-year-old daughter, in The Infidel.
The Infidel (2010) tells the story of Mahmud Nasir (played with grumpy charm by British comedian Omid Djalili), an East London British-Pakistani family man, who discovers upon the recent death of his mother that he was adopted and (to his dismay) that he was born Jewish. The resulting crisis of identity leads him to try to track down his birth parents, with the help of his equally ill-tempered American Jewish neighbour Lenny (Richard Schiff, of West Wing fame). At the same time, his moderate Muslim life is unsettled by the imminent visit of his son's future father-in-law, a hard-line Egyptian cleric named Arshad Al-Masri (played by Israeli actor Yigal Naor, HBO's House of Saddam), who is coming to make sure that his daughter's new family are, as Mahmud's precocious four-year-old daughter puts it, "Muslim enough." These twin pressures lead to a slapstick process by which Mahmud alternately tries on both identities, and finds that neither truly fits. It is an amusing – sometimes hilarious – fable, told with a gentle, prodding eye on hypocrisy and all the holier-than-thou ways we often police one another's behaviour without taking our own into account.

Produced in the UK on a small budget, The Infidel was directed by Josh Appignanesi (whose only other feature is 2005's haunting Jewish-themed Song of Songs) and written by David Baddiel. In 2010, the movie created some buzz at the Tribeca Film Festival and ultimately became a modest hit in theatres worldwide (even inspiring a 2015 Bollywood remake). In 2014, Baddiel launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund his own stage musical adaptation of the script, which would eventually premiere at London's Theatre Royal Stratford East replete with songs by Erran Baron Cohen. But it is the original film that bears revisiting, especially at the close of this dark year.

The Infidel was released the same year as the much more provocative Four Lions, Chris Morris' satirical movie about four bumbling homegrown British jihadists, and perhaps was easy to dismiss at the time for its relative lack of bite. But what Baddiel's script may want in subversiveness, it more than makes up in its humanity. Like Four Lions (and Paul Weitz's woefully underappreciated American Dreamz from 2006), The Infidel is an equal opportunity offender, casting its comedic arrows at unthinking beliefs of all stripes, whether they are politically left or right, secular or religious, Jewish or Muslim.

Djalili appears in almost every scene and more than carries that weight. (His most notable role for North American audiences is probably still his thankless sidekick role in Whoopi Goldberg's regrettable 2004 NBC comedy Whoopi, but his face will likely jar a number of associations for his numerous smaller roles in Hollywood films, usually as a minor character of Middle Eastern descent.) He brings an effortless charisma to his role, and is supported by an ensemble of engaging actors – including the stunning Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife) as his wife Saamiya, her sassy Lancaster-accented, burka-wearing bestie (Mina Anwar), and, as his wide-eyed son Rashid, Amit Shah (currently starring in the British comedy-drama Crashing, now streaming on Netflix). But it is the grudging friendship that develops between Mahmud and Lenny that remains the beating heart of the story. Schiff and Djalili have the easy chemistry that only two prickly middle-aged men can have, and that relationship grows without urgency or falseness.

Richard Schiff and Omid Djalili in The Infidel.

Though most of Lenny's Borsht Belt jibes are distractingly cringe-worthy (in one scene he shares his view of so-called Buddhist Jews: they "believe you should renounce all material possessions, but still keep the receipts"), the one-liners also contribute to our growing sense of a man uncomfortable with his own growing isolation from his community, his family, and himself. Recently divorced from his wife, and suddenly estranged from his son, Lenny is having a crisis all his own when Mahmud falls into his life. For all its farcical elements, The Infidel turns out to be populated by exiles who are negotiating their discomfort in their own skin with only variable success. Schiff's character is well served by a greater temporal distance from his too-memorable West Wing persona, and his unwilling American-Jewish-stranger-in-a-strange-British-Jewish-land story delivers more pathos in 2016 than it had in 2010.

To Baddiel's credit, the film owns its depiction of superficial Jewishness, and doesn't profess to offer anything close to authenticity in its portrayal of either Jewish or Muslim life. When Mahmud reveals that his birth name was Solly Shimshillewitz, Lenny retorts: "Why didn't they just call you Jewy-Jew-Jew-Jew-Jew, and be done with it?". Lenny's idea of the Jewish identity alternates evenly among knishes, Auschwitz, and hypochondria, and to be fair to the film, this too is challenged (even if that challenge is voiced by a markedly doughheaded rabbi). The few times either of our standard bearers interacts with more deeply identified members of their respective communities – like Mahmud's new progressive imam (author of Islam: The Other Voices) or the rabbi who keeps Mahmud from meeting with the man he believes to be his Jewish birth father – both Mahmud and Lenny fall dramatically short.

Sandwiched between his old-county pious parents and his newly-enthusiast progressive Muslim son, Mahmud's story mirrors those of many first-generation immigrants, as his moderate (largely de facto) cultural version of Islam – with its rare mosque visits and the odd pint of pale ale – begins to wobble under the pressure. The bulk of the film centres on Mahmud's trying on both guises, suddenly tasked with studying up in order to be himself – the first for his new potential in-laws and the second to 'Jew it up' enough to meet the man he believes to be his birth father. For the latter, Lenny takes Mahmud under his wing – showing him how to shrug properly, teaching him a few key Yiddish phrases, and loaning him a well-worn copy of Portnoy's Complaint. (Those scenes aren't subtle, but they are also reflective of the ambivalence Lenny himself feels about his own Jewish identity.) At first, Mahmud tries on his newly-found Jewishness with a diffident curiosity – for example, experiencing for the first time the particular trauma of typing the word "Jew" into Google – only to find himself faced with trading one apparently despised identity for another. It is certainly notable that ultimately it is a more substantial return to origins that finally rights Mahmud's ship, as he puts down the Philip Roth and looks at the Hebrew scriptures and his copy of the Koran side by side – which leads us the film's pat but satisfying conclusion, where the man at long last finds his own voice.

Until this week, it had been six years since I had last seen The Infidel. The question of how the film would read in this year of the polarizing campaigns for Brexit and Donald Trump loomed large for me as I popped in the DVD. My concern was that its gentleness would feel unwatchably naïve in our era of increased tensions against ethnic communities in both North American and Britain, with street-level xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia taking a sharp rise, and with the popular weakening of ideals of coexistence and multiculturalism. I ought not to have worried. Human at its core, The Infidel is more contemporary fairy tale (complete with a villain for our hero to fell) than political satire, and works most successfully as a story of emerging mid-life self-awareness, an irreverent fable about sincerity and self-doubt winning out over authenticity and unthinking certainty – in short, perhaps just the right story for our times.

Next Sunday December 11 (4pm and 7:30pm), the Toronto Jewish Film Society is screening The Infidel at the Miles Nadal JCC in downtown Toronto. I will be on hand to introduce and lead a Q & A on the film.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.

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