Category Archives: United Kingdom

The Infidel

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.

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Commentary

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.

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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.

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An Education

An Education (2010) is a coming-of-age film based upon a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barbour, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby.   A British schoolgirl, Jenny Mellor (played by Carey Mulligan) accepts a lift home from school from an older man, David Goldman, played by Peter Sarsgaard.  The year is 1961, and the girl feels hemmed in by middle-class rules.  She is afraid that the world is passing her by, until the charming man in the car offers her glamor and romance.   She accepts his offer, and receives an education:  to say much more would spoil any surprise the viewer might find in this film.  The film won 18 awards out of 48 nominations, including 3 Oscar nominations, and it was critically well-received.

Commentary

An Education‘s Jewish content and controversy begins with the fact that the David Goldman character is Jewish.  Anti-Semitism twice figures into the plot in an overt manner:  first, before David’s entrance, Jenny’s father (played brilliantly by Alfred Molina) refers to Jenny’s non-Jewish suitor as a “Wandering Jew,” summoning up a figure from European anti-Semitic folklore.  Then, when Jenny is about to introduce David, who has told her that he is Jewish, she taunts her father to watch himself, since David is “a wandering Jew.”  Mr. Mellor blusters that he’s not an anti-Semite, it’s just a figure of speech, etc. etc. and is thereby silenced regarding whatever opinions he might have regarding David’s Jewishness.  The second overt anti-Semitic moment in the film comes when Jenny tells the school mistress (played by Emma Thompson) that she intends to marry David:

Headmistress: “He’s a Jew? You’re aware, I take it, that the Jews killed our Lord?”

Jenny: “And you’re aware, I suppose, that our Lord was Jewish?”

Headmistress: “I suppose he told you that. We’re all very sorry about what happened during the war. But that’s absolutely no excuse for that sort of malicious and untruthful propaganda.”

Jenny’s response? She prefers to spend his money and live glamorously than to do the boring work of study, and she insolently suggests the headmistress prepare better for the next time a girl wants to know why she should get an education.

The casual viewer might see the film and say, as many have, that David’s Jewishness is incidental to the film, or merely an opportunity to display the narrow-mindedness of the conventional middle-class British mindset of 1961.  Indeed, the screenwriter has said that the character is Jewish only because the real con man in the memoir was Jewish.  However, as the Lynn Barber observes in an interview about the process of making a her memoir into a film, a lot of other details were changed on the way from one medium to another, so it seems quite fair to ask:  why is this detail left in place?

This points us towards a question of a much deeper, more pervasive anti-Semitism in the film, an issue originally raised in an article in the Jewish Journal.  David fits many of the ugliest stereotypes purveyed by anti-Semites, indeed, precisely the attributes of the Wandering Jew cited in the beginning of the film.  He is an urban and urbane character, at home in the fashionable salons about town.  He makes his money by speculating on property values in middle-class white neighborhoods he deliberately devalues by importing black residents; he is an art speculator and a petty thief.   When challenged by Jenny about his thievery, he justifies his crimes by citing his lack of opportunity, “We’re not clever like you.”   He eventually emerges as having made a hobby out of the ruin of nice English girls.  In short, he is the personification of the parasitical Jew in Der Erwige Juden (The Eternal Jew, 1940).  In fact, “Der Erwige Juden” is the German name for the figure of The Wandering Jew.

I confess I did not see this on my first viewing of the film, but upon reflection, it is all there and it’s quite nasty, whatever the intent or non-intent of the filmmakers.  I was not certain of it until I stumbled across a review of the film by a prominent anti-Semite, who writes that the film is a parable about the seduction of young people’s minds and souls by evil Jews.  I’m not going to cite or link that particular item, because I prefer not to give such garbage additional press.  My point is that whatever the filmmakers did or did not intend, this film contains certain specific tropes regarding Jews that act as a magnet for a certain type of deranged person.

I wish they had left out the “Wandering Jew” business, and if it is not essential to the film that he’s Jewish, then why make a point of it?

The Anti Defamation League has gone on record saying that they don’t think harm was intended.  After reading interviews with the filmmakers and the memoirist, I tend to agree.  However, I think that the meme of the Wandering Jew is strong stuff that a filmmaker should use only in a very intentional manner, and that this film is fodder for haters.

The Governess

The Governess (1998) is set in the 1830’s, and it tells the story of Rosina (Minnie Driver) the pampered daughter of a London Sephardic family whose father dies unexpectedly and leaves the family in debt.  Faced with the choices of the Austen ladies in a similar situation a century before (marriage, domestic work, or prostitution), she rejects marriage and tries her hand at being a governess.  For marketing purposes, she poses as a Christian lady and goes to work for an odd family living on the Isle of Skye.  Rosina has an affair with her Scottish Protestant employer (Tom Wilkinson), and predictably, it does not end happily.  She also collaborates with him on his experiments in the chemistry of early photography, and their collaboration, too, is problematic.  In the end, she goes her own way.

The movie opened to rapturous reviews from many critics, who hailed the beautiful photography in this film set in the early days of photography.  It won several British and European film awards.  The soundtrack is also notable, featuring both chazzanut by Maurice Martin and vocals by Ofra Haza.

Commentary

I was all prepared to enjoy this movie:  I have a weakness for costume dramas.  There were some things about The Governess that I did enjoy very much:  it portrays parts of Jewish life (in this case, Sephardic Jewish life) that are rarely depicted onscreen, and while not everything is authentic, a lot is quite well done.  On the other hand, the story is just plain stupid, an unwholesome fantasy.

The governess of the title is a young Jewish woman who appears to be well educated, but without much in the way of either scruples or common sense.  (However, the screenplay doesn’t make much sense either, so maybe that was inevitable.)  She masquerades as a Christian to take a job teaching children, and expects to support her mother and sister on the wages she receives.  Much is made of the need to keep her Jewishness a secret, but she apparently keeps a considerable number of keepsakes in her room that any nosy maid or child could find.

Despite the fact that her mother and sister are dependent on her wages, Rosina initiates an affair with her employer, pitches noisy fits when he eventually rejects her, and after doing what she can to make domestic life a living hell (presenting his wife with a naked photo of her husband, in the middle of a dinner party) she hops in a carriage to go back to London, carrying stolen camera lenses, and with their daughter in tow!  (The daughter then disappears from the film — what was that about?)

Leaving most of the ten commandments in ruins behind her (at least she didn’t kill anyone, I suppose) she lives happily ever after as a fashionable photographer in London.

It is indeed a very pretty film, with a very pretty soundtrack.  The chazzanut at various points, especially the opening credits, is marvelous.  Ofra Haza’s voice is beautiful (but why not employ any of several wonderful Sephardic singers?) The trouble is, this film hasn’t much going for it other than “pretty.”  As a feminist film, it fails miserably, because it does not begin to grapple with the real situation of women at the time:  they were far too vulnerable to pull the stunts Rosina does. It would have been much more plausible for her boss to kick her out the door empty-handed, to walk back to London or to die of cold and starvation.

What about the Jewish elements?  Beautiful chazzanut, yes.  And it is true that the Sephardic community of London from the time of the Commonwealth onwards has many stories worth telling, stories with lots of rich costumes and romantic intrigue.  I just wish this had been one of those, instead of being such an unbelievable yarn.

Jewish identity seems to mean a great deal to Rosina (we see her lighting a clandestine Shabbat candle, and attempting to make herself a little Passover seder, wrapping herself in her father’s tallit), but it does not seem to inform her behavior at all.

Double Feature

If you want to see a romantic story about a stubborn Jewish woman in a fictionalized past, go watch Yentl.  It is romantic and a bit silly in parts, but at least Streisand’s heroine knows what she wants.   It says something very, very bad about The Governess that Yentl’s plot is more plausible.

Chariots of Fire

chariotsoffireChariots of Fire (1981) is a fictionalized account of the story of two British runners who participated in the 1924 Summer Olympics, Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson)  and Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross).  Both are men with something to prove which separates them from the “gentlemen athletes” on the rest of the British team.  In Liddell’s case, it was his evangelical Christianity; in Abrahams’ case, it was the fact that he was a Jew.

The film won 4 Oscars out of 7 nominations.  It was nominated for the Palm D’Or at Cannes, and won two other prizes.

Commentary

Chariots of Fire is one of those historical films that succeeds in conveying the emotions of a time, without necessarily getting every fact exactly right.  As a history of the 1924 Olympics, it gets things pretty badly scrambled, but its depiction of “polite” anti-Semitism is spot-on.  Abrahams is hailed as a sports hero, but the Cambridge establishment constantly frets over his “pushiness” and his lack of “gentlemanly” demeanor.

The film takes place in the period between the two World Wars before the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.  It offers an opportunity to look at British upper-class attitudes towards British Jews, and particularly the attitude towards those Jews who presume to full participation in British society.  These attitudes would play a significant role in the British debate about Nazism a few years later, and a role as well in the Allied response to the Holocaust.

The film is a good springboard for discussion and has the added benefit of being child-friendly.

Question

What’s odd about the funeral at the end of the film?  If you spot it, what do you think about it?