The Reluctant Infidel. Starring Omid Djalili, Richard Schiff, Archie Panjabi, Soraya Redford, Matt Lucas and Yigal Naor. Directed by Josh Appignanesi. 105 minutes. Rated MA 15+ (strong coarse language).
The title, The Reluctant Infidel, has the ring of religious intolerance about it. And that is what the film is about. However, it is not preaching in the serious vein about intolerance, it is preaching seriously via comedy. This is a risky enterprise, especially if those in need of learning lessons of tolerance and mutual understanding lack a sense of humour (which anyone with the touch of the fanatic tends to lack). There is probably enough in this comedy, which has quite a light touch but deep feelings about Muslims and Jews, to upset the humourless people.
Omid Djalili has built up a reputation on stage and on television as a strong comedian. Here he portrays a second generation Pakistani minicab manager in London, Mahmud, Muslim but not taking it or practice too seriously. His son wants to marry his sweetheart but her mother has just become engaged to an Imam who has a reputation for stirring up hate. That might be enough for a comedy that wants to challenge extremism but there is more, much much more.
While cleaning out his deceased mother's room, Mahmud finds that he was adopted – and that he was Jewish, Solly Shimshillewitz.
So, on the one hand you have the funny scenes poking fun at Muslims like the visit of the Imam to inspect his prospective son-in-law and Mahmud trying his hardest to give a good and orthodox impression as well as a rally by the smug Imam with his henchmen planted to ask sympathy-eliciting questions with his surprising unmasking (though I don't know what Cat Stevens, who is mentioned earlier in the film, would make of the twist). There is also some comedy at Mahmud turning up at a pro-Palestinian rally and his doing some quick thinking to divert the crowd from thinking he was Jewish.
On the other hand you have Mahmud investigating his Jewish background so that he can meet his dying father and having antagonistic cab driver, Lennie (Richard Schiff familiar from The West Wing), coach him in manners and expressions Jewish. The attempts to do the Jewish shrug and say 'Oy' are very funny as is Lenny's taking Mahmud to a Bar Mitzvah celebration and stranding him on the dais and getting him to tell a Jewish story.
The difficulty with a film like this is that, while it is actually quite funny and audiences will enjoy it, it is really preaching to the converted. One would like to think, however, that it may make a convert or two to religious and cultural tolerance.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Becker Film Group
Released: September 16, 2010