Twitter Plot Summary: Mahmud finds that he’s adopted and is actually of Jewish descent rather than a Muslim. He has to cope with his new, conflicting identity.
They say the key ingredient to any narrative is conflict. Here, the not-very Muslim man Mahmud (Omid Djalili) is in conflict primarily with himself. But he is also in conflict with his religion, his origins and the world at large in which he lives. In quick succession he has to contend with the news that his son wants to marry the daughter of an extremist Muslim; the recent death of his Muslim mother; and the subsequent discovery that he was adopted and is in fact of Jewish origin. As he has to deal with this rather unfortunate series of events and tries to set up a meeting with his birth father, he then has to contend with his wife drawing conclusions from his suspicious behaviour. She naturally assumes he is having an affair – a point ridiculed quite succinctly by Mina Anwar’s burka-clad female best friend.
In the midst of all this he has to learn how to appear to be more Jewish. Why? In order to embrace his newfound heritage and be sufficient to meet his father. At the same time he is trying to look like a more committed Muslim in order to appease the extremist tendencies of the radical Muslim cleric (who has an assistant who is not at all based on Abu Hamza). He will potentially be a part of the extended family if all goes well between the kids. What’s a man to do in such a ludicrous situation? Probably have a mental breakdown.
There’s some good fun to be had during these conflicting religious moments, on the one hand Mahmud trying to demonstrate his knowledge of the Qu’ran, and on the other taking Jewish lessons from American Jewish taxi driver Lenny Goldberg, through which he finds himself attending a Bar Mitzvah. The abrasive odd couple relationship between Mahmud Goldberg (Richard Schiff) is a delight from start to finish and is a clear highlight of the entire production. Schiff is a dependable presence in anything, but Djalili proves to be much more than that minor actor who had a brief scene with Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
Much less radical than its cousin Four Lions, The Infidel pokes gentle fun at both Muslims and Jews whilst making a valid point about the hypocritical nature of religious difference (and also their inherent similarities), the ease with which words and actions can be misconstrued, and having a less gentle poke at the media while the claws are out. The jokes may not strike home as often as they should, but thanks to Djalili’s dependable and, importantly, likeable lead performance, it elevates itself above what could have easily been an incitement of hatred about both religious groups rather than the message of tolerance that it actually passes on. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it is, in essence, a classic farce given a modern sheen.
What really made me think though was the number of people who own and use VHS players and cassette tapes in this film, despite the fact they were obsolete and almost non-existent in popular culture when it was made. Retro and cool in one respect, but more concerning for a tech geek like myself than any possible religious offence The Infidel may have caused. Someone please buy these people a DVD player and let them move with the times.