The Infidel (2010) is a British comedy about Mahmud, a moderate Muslim whose life is thrown into chaos by two discoveries: first, that his son wants to marry the daughter of a radical Islamic imam, and second, that he may in fact be a Jew. Nothing about that sounds funny, but in the midst of a train wreck of religion, politics, and identity, The Infidel finds gentle humor by exploring the absurdity of all bigotry. In that, it reminds me of the classic French comedy, The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob (1973).
Mahmud is played by Omid Djalili, a British Iranian standup comedian and actor, who may be a familiar face to international audiences from his appearance in the 1999 James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough. Mahmud is a hapless fellow who does not ask much: he would like to sit on the couch watching football and music videos by his favorite singer from the 80’s, Gary Page. However, as the patriarch of the family, he must deal with his deceased mother’s home and take care of his family.
Before we are ten minutes into the film, Mahmud’s life becomes complicated. His son reveals to him that (1) he has found the woman he wants to marry and (2) her father is a radical cleric who must approve the marriage, and who is visiting England now. As if that were not bad enough, Mahmud finds records in his mother’s house leading him to believe that his biological parents were Jews.
His sense of self and security blown to smithereens as surely as by any bomb, Mahmud sets out to explore his Jewish identity with the help of Lenny, an American Jewish cab driver, played by Richard Schiff. He is Naomi to Mahmud’s Ruth, trying to teach him what it is to be a Jew. Meanwhile Mahmud is also trying to hold together a pious Islamic facade for the visiting imam, out of exasperated love for his son.
To say more would spoil the fun. As a NY Times critic wrote, this is not caustic stuff. I enjoyed it because like the best humor, it laughs at and with everyone it portrays.
There are very few films that attempt to mine comedy from the hard stone of Jewish – Muslim relations. The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob is more about French anti-Semitism; there are Muslim characters but they are secondary. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan attempts this material but loses its way with anti-Arab nastiness. The Band’s Visit is an Israeli film with comic elements but it is a more complex film with more complicated characters. The Infidel goes for broad humor and a big laugh; the ending is ridiculous but satisfying.
Mahmud is a sympathetic character: he is a sincere if not exactly devout Muslim, and he genuinely loves his wife and family. Lenny is a bit of a stereotype, a cranky mostly-secular American Jew, but Schiff plays him with a gruff grace at the right moments. The accomplishment of this film is that it is firmly grounded in the humanity of these guys and the people around them. We laugh and groan at both of them, and feel that we know them a bit better. In this 21st century of bitterness and war, that is an accomplishment.
Parents should be aware that the film does not contain much in the way of sex or violence, but there is a lot of foul language.