Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tribeca ’10: The Infidel

He is the British Muslim Archie Bunker. Mahmud Nasir might not be particularly enlightened in his attitudes towards Jews, but to his credit, he also takes a similarly dim view of his radical coreligionists. However, Nasir’s prejudices are fundamentally shaken when he discovers he was actually born to Jewish parents and later adopted by his Muslim family in Josh Appignanesi’s The Infidel (trailer here) a refreshingly bold comedy that screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

There are many Muslims like Nasir, both in America and the UK, who enjoy the occasional beer and a good football match, yet still consider themselves at peace with their faith. However, standing up to extremists is often difficult for various reasons. Nasir has been relatively outspoken in his criticism of their ilk. Unfortunately, his son wants to marry the step-daughter of Arshad Al-Masri, an extremist Islamist cleric. Nasir is willing to grin and bear Al-Masri’s Islamist strictures as best he can for his son’s sake until he uncovers his adoption certificate while cleaning out his recently deceased mother’s flat. It turns out his birth name was the decidedly un-Muslim Solly Shimshillewitz. Obviously, this complicates matters tremendously.

As he investigates matters further, he discovers his birth father might still be living in a Jewish nursing home. Time is clearly short though and Shimshillewitz’s rabbi will not allow Nasir visiting rights until he demonstrates a proper command of Jewish traditions. Short of Jewish friends, Nasir turns to the bemused Lenny, the American-expat cab driver he had been feuding with, for a crash course in Judaism.

Infidel is a rare comedy about tolerance actually directed at an audience most indeed of its message: contemporary Muslims. While David Baddiel’s amusing screenplay maintains a light comedic tone overall, it includes some quite pointed details. It is pretty frank depicting Islamist anti-Semitism, particularly at a “Palestinian” demonstration, where hateful signs reading “the real Holocaust will come” are plainly visible. Even more provocatively, when an unlikely chain of slapstick circumstances forces Nasir to burn his new yarmulke as an ostensive protest, he finally earns the approval of his prospective in-law.

As Nasir, Omid Djalili has a legitimate Ralph Kramden charm. Despite his initial narrow-mindedness, he always comes across as a likeable, well meaning family man. Richard Schiff (Emmy nominated for The West Wing) nicely compliments him as the cynical Lenny, never overplaying his character’s old school Woody Allen humor.

Appignanesi and Baddiel nicely balance Infidel’s amiable goofiness with its more serious message. Sure, it wraps everything up in a neat little package that might not be realistic, but it is a comedy, after all. As such, it is quite an effect plea for tolerance and moderation. It screens at Tribeca Sunday (4/25), Thursday (4/29), and Saturday (5/1).