4 / 5 stars
It has been theorized that the roots of the Arab-Jewish conflict lie in one of the earliest tales of the Torah. Before Abraham begot Issac, he impregnated Hagar who gave birth to Ishmael. After being expelled from home, Hagar’s lament is heard by God, who promises to make her son the father of all Arabs. Thus, Jews and Arabs are half-brothers. In the centuries thence, these “brothers” have been at the center of the most volatile geopolitical debates of our time. This hotbed issue has spawned a number of great films and literature on the subject, mostly embedded in the dramatic or romantically tragic. However, this month’s Quirky Queue pick is a rarity: a lighthearted and charming comedy on the subject. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
Distributed in the U.S. by Tribeca, The Infidel stars British comedian/actor Omid Djalili as Mahmud Nasir: a middle-aged, moderate Muslim father and husband who would much rather watch 1980s New Wave videos than go to mosque. His quiet life turns maddening when his son confesses that his soon-to-be father-in-law is the latest radical Islamic cleric to hit the airwaves. Worse yet, while shuffling through his deceased parents’ belongings, Mahmud discovers his adoption papers. The cherry on top? Mahmud’s actual birth parents were Jewish.
When Mahmud finds his birth father barely alive in a rest home, he is barred from seeing him by the old man’s rabbi, who fears that the image of his son as a Muslim would drive the man quickly into the afterlife. Thus, in an effort to become more “Jewish,” Mahmud enlists the help of Jewish-American taxi driver Lenny Goldberg (the professionally prolific Richard Schiff). Thus begins a comedy of errors never seen before in the Arab/Jewish media milieu.
The squat and chunky Djalili is absolutely charming and sympathetic as Mahmud. Schiff is downright hilarious as Lenny. His cynical character, espousing the core of Jewish culture with dialogue peppered by four letter words, is the equivalent of a bowl of matzoh ball soup followed by a shot of slivovitz. The two men’s onscreen relationship seems to have a natural flow to it and makes up the strongest parts of the film. Rounding out the cast are Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife) and Yigal Naor (Rendition and Munich).
The script is witty and quite satisfying without being offensive, a line that is difficult to toe given the subject matter. However, this strength also turns out to be the film’s eventual weakness as things are wrapped up a little too neatly, a little too (dare I say?) Hollywood given the true nature of the cultural and religious conflict. Well, it is just a comedy. And a pretty damn good one at that.