Show type: Film
Meet Mahmud Nasir, loving husband, doting father and something of a 'relaxed' Muslim.
Does the F-word occasionally pass his lips? It’s hardly worth mentioning. Does he say his prayers five times a day? Of course! Well, usually… Does he fast every day of Ramadan? Who’s counting anyway?
He may not be the most observant, but in his heart he is as Muslim as it gets. But after his mother’s death a discovery turns Mahmud’s world upside down. He finds his birth certificate which reveals that not only was he adopted at birth…but he’s Jewish, and his real name is Solly Shimshillewitz!
As Mahmud tumbles headlong into a full scale identity crisis, the only person he can turn to is Lenny, a drunken Jewish cabbie who agrees to give him lessons in Jewishness, which start with how to dance like Topol. Oy vey.
As film pitches go, ‘Omid Djalili plays a Muslim who discovers he’s a Jew’ is about as concise as you can get. What it doesn’t tell you, however, is the tone of The Infidel, David Baddiel’s new film about the centuries-old religious divide.
Few areas could be more contentious for comedy, yet this witty-but-flawed movie is pulled off with a lightness of touch that only the most narrow-minded could possibly object to. There may be the odd Jewish joke, or a Muslim made to look an idiot – but that’s comedy. The tenets of faith are studiously avoided.
Screenwriter Baddiel says that his aim was to make Djalili’s character Mahmud, an Islamic everyman – a slightly slobbsh, slightly inept Homer Simpson type. No religious nutjob, he’s an out-of-shape football fanatic from suburban London who falls asleep during prayer and is obsessed with New Romantic music. More fat than fatwah, you might say.
Clearing out his mother’s house one day, he stumbles across evidence that he was adopted and – after a very funny slapstick scene with Miranda Hart – discovers he was actually born Solly Shimshillewitz. 'Why didn't they just call you Jewy Jew Jew Jew Jew and be done with it?' one character observes..
Keen, but apprehensive, to find out more about his Jewish roots, he hooks up with brittle and acerbic Lenny – nicely played by the West Wing’s Richard Schiff, bringing a touch of biting Catskills wit to the role. He’s Henry Higgins to Djalili’s Eliza Doolittle, and most of the film’s funnier moments come from his desperate attempts to learn a new culture.
Because The Infidel is a light role-reversal comedy influenced by the likes of Big or Freaky Friday, pertinent questions about the role of upbringing and faith are skirted around, in favour of a largely likeable Odd Couple-type comedy. Each of the two leads are happy exchanging jibes about each other’s culture, and while Baddiel, an atheist of Jewish stock, is understandably sharper when it comes to quipping about his own background, the jokes are by no means all one way.
A monastically humourless jihadist cleric is provided to allow quips about Muslim stereotypes, while Mahmud attending a big, fat Jewish bar mitzvah is an outlet for all the Jewish jokes. There’s also a strong element of farce as Mahmud tries to disguise his new-found roots from the Muslim community.
Its good natured, low-key and frequently entertaining – largely thanks to a typically warm performance from Djalili. It’s even occasionally very funny, even if the plot unfolds along rather predictable lines: wouldn’t you know it, Lenny and Mahmud put their initial distrust of each other behind them and become unlikely friends.
But there are also missteps along the way, such as the misunderstandings that ensue from the iman who mistakenly thinks Mahmud is gay, which seem to have dropped out of a Seventies farce. Mahmud’s emotional turmoil as he’s ostracised from Muslim family and friends isn’t given much impact by director Josh Appignanesi, and there are a few scenes that don’t seem to earn their place either on dramatic or comedy grounds.
The denouement, however, isn’t just a wobble, but a total let-down, relying on an all-too convenient – and entirely unbelievable – coincidence, before a schmaltzy ‘we’re all the same you know…’ speech. It’s a near-fatal cop-out for a good-spirited, if inconsistent, Britcom on a topic that’s long overdue a light comic touch.
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett