Sunday, September 5, 2010

Film review: 'The Infidel' takes on religion with some solid laughs

Richard Schiff‭ (‬left‭) ‬and Omid Djalili‭ (‬right‭) ‬in The Infidel.


By Hap Erstein


A debate is raging in this country over what it means to be Muslim.‭ ‬The ethnic comedy‭ ‬The Infidel‭ ‬will hardly resolve things,‭ ‬but it least it tosses some leavening humor at the question.‭

Following its debut in the spring at the Tribeca Film Festival and its subsequent limited runs in New York and California,‭ ‬director Josh Appignanesi’s send-up of religious stereotypes opts for South Florida as the next market to attempt to gain a box office foothold.‭ ‬Not a bad strategy when you consider the left turn the film’s plot takes.

You see,‭ ‬the‭ ‬infidel‭ ‬of the title‭ ‬is British Muslim Mahmud Nasir‭ ‬(Omid Djalili‭)‬,‭ ‬as indifferent to his religious faith as his children are to him.‭ ‬The biggest challenge he expects to face is his son Rashid’s looming wedding,‭ ‬but‭ ‬--‭ ‬shades of‭ ‬La Cage aux Folles‭ ‬--‭ ‬his fiancee’s stepfather is a fanatical and intolerant Muslim cleric who doubts the Nasirs are‭ “‬proper Muslims‭” ‬or that Rashid is worthy of his stepdaughter.

But that crisis pales next to Mahmud’s discovery,‭ ‬upon the death of his mother,‭ ‬of his birth certificate.‭ ‬It seems that middle-aged,‭ ‬pudgy,‭ ‬bald-headed Mahmud‭ ‬--‭ ‬who looks like a Muslim Bob Hoskins‭ ‬--‭ ‬was adopted at birth.‭ ‬Not only that,‭ ‬but he is actually Jewish,‭ ‬and his birth name is Solly Shimshillewitz.

Oy.

It is not that he hates Jews,‭ ‬just that he is hopelessly ignorant of them beyond their stereotypical characteristics.‭ ‬So he needs a crash course in what a Jew is and how they behave‭ ‬--‭ ‬how they walk,‭ ‬dance,‭ ‬shrug and sigh‭ ‬– again,‭ ‬shades of‭ ‬La Cage.‭ ‬The only Jew he knows is the antagonistic transplanted New York cabbie,‭ ‬Lenny‭ (‬Richard Schiff from TV’s‭ ‬The West Wing‭)‬,‭ ‬who inexplicably takes on the role of Jew coach.‭ ‬Then,‭ ‬like Eliza Doolittle at the ball,‭ ‬Mahmud gets tested by attending a bar mitzvah with Lenny.

Much of this could easily come off as offensive,‭ ‬but is saved by the performance of Djalili,‭ ‬a comedian-actor with an ingratiating manner and a sky spin on the dialogue.

Not even he can save the film from its sentimental conclusion,‭ ‬which grinds the tale to a decided halt,‭ ‬but there are a few solid laughs before then,‭ ‬enough to wish the film luck trying to get out beyond Florida.‭

The Infidel is currently showing at Movies of Delray,‭ ‬Movies of Lake Worth,‭ ‬Sunrise Cinemas-Deerfield Mall and Sunrise Cinemas-Sunrise‭ ‬11.

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