If Dogma manages to masterfully toe the line between parody and mockery of religion, and Chris Morris’ Four Lions dispenses with any kind of subtlety to offer both outrage and hilarity, then The Infidel lives in the middle ground – a treasure trove of both religious and racial stereotypes (in both self-deprecating and bigoted varieties) and heart-warming moments of human drama, with plenty of jokes thrown in for good measure. This isn’t really even a film about religion, it’s a film about a man struggling with his identity after the huge upheaval in his established and balanced life. It’s the classic debate about nature-versus-nurture, whether people should be defined by how they live, what they belief or where they came from.
Mahmud (Omid Djalili) is a fairly moderate modern Muslim living with his family in London when, while cleaning out his late mother’s home, he discovers that he was adopted when he was two weeks old and that his parents (and himself) are, in fact, a Jew by the name of Solly Shimshillewitz. This plunges him into an existential crisis, unsure whether the answer is to re-double his efforts to adhere to Islam, or to embrace his Judaic roots, especially when he discovers that his biological father is near-death and wouldn’t survive an encounter with his Muslim son. Mahmud enlists the help of Lenny Goldberg (Richard Schiff) to learn more about Judaism and, oddly, Jewish stereotyping in Britain.
Things are further complicated when his son Rashid (Amit Shah) announces that his wife-to-be Uzma’s (Soraya Radford) mother is marrying extremist cleric Arshad Al-Masri (Yigal Naor), and that Mahmud and his family must make a show of strict Islamic orthodoxy to gain his blessing for the marriage. Through the usual misunderstandings that come from attempting to lead a double life, resulting in Mahmud nearly being arrested for inciting religious hatred, before finally revealing himself as a Jew in front of his family and Al-Masri (and resulting in a hilarious moment where the police let him off for burning a kippah, since it’s ” like that Jackie Mason fella”). Mahmud is left by both family and friends alike, suffering a terrible ostracism for simply being born to the wrong kind of person. He finally goes to see his birth father, and finds himself too late – he has died, but not before seeing a videotape (sent by Lenny) featuring Mahmud’s televised admission of Judaism. After much turmoil, Mahmud confronts Al-Masri at a lecture and gives an impassioned defence of both his son’s worthiness to marry Uzma, and his own lack of shame in his roots. Sadly, at this point the film hits a huge stumbling point with a revelation about Al-Masri’s own roots that comes out of nowhere, and feels very contrived. As a climax, it seems to be a deus ex machina, with little-to-no foreshadowing and lazy execution. At last, Mahmud is reunited with his family, Rashid gets the girl, and they all live happily ever after.
This is a very heartfelt film, and Omid Djalili, as well as being a hilarious comedian, lends a tremendous humanity to his role in his struggle to re-ground himself in his new-found identity, as well as his struggle against the malevolent taxi drivers of London. I do question how “charming” it is to include comic relief in the form of Mahmud’s young daughter wandering in the background spouting jihadist sentiments and wielding a plastic sword, but for the most part the humour is very organic and never seems to be in poor taste. The numerous racial and religious epithets hurled around are certainly offensive to the more politically-correct ear, but is never used with any real malevolence, merely mirroring the kind of stereotypes that most people throw around without thinking. The themes of conflict really boil down to one internal struggle and one outer, as Mahmud battles his own insecurities and the sinister Al-Masri, and emerges triumphant and more complete as a human being. This film is not for everyone (least of all the easily offended), but those willing to look past the vulgarity (not to mention the truly disappointing solution to one major plot point) to the people within the story will come away feeling that they have seen one man’s journey laid out on film, and will share in the relief and joy that Mahmud is whole again.