By Jason Apuzzo. A few weeks ago I was approached by a persistent if strangely insensate census worker who wanted to know what ethnic category I fell into. Presented with a palate of government-approved options, I found myself falling into what is no doubt the least sexy category of all – that of a generic ‘white’ person, even though my heritage (as far back as I’m aware) represents a vast and colorful mosaic of southern, central and eastern Europe.
To be frank, I felt a little disappointed. I’d assumed that since the last census in which I’d participated 10 years ago, things would’ve improved a bit. I thought there would’ve been some kind of category for gringos like me, so that the exercise of participating in the census would somehow be less tedious. Imagine, I thought, how exciting it would be to be, say, part Thai and part Alaskan – you’d have several boxes to fill out. That would be exciting.
Omid Djalili’s absolutely hilarious new film The Infidel (see the trailer here) presents a different kind of anxiety from the one I faced: that of the man whose ethnic identity literally makes him a marked man. The Infidel (which recently showed at The Tribeca Film Festival and in theaters, and is available for download below) stars the antic, Rabelasian actor-comedian Djalili as a British Muslim named Mahmud who learns by accident that he was actually born Jewish. The revelation of his Judaism, striking as it is to him, would not be so much of an issue if it weren’t for the fact that his daughter is about to marry the stepson of a radical imam from Pakistan who preaches jihad against the infidel … and that’s really when the hijinks begin.
The Infidel is essentially a fish-out-of-water comedy in which a guy who believes himself to be a modern, liberal Muslim is faced with the reality of having to suddenly (and covertly) integrate into the Jewish world … while trying to retain his street-cred as a Muslim. Does this sound rife with comic possibilities? It is – and Infidel screenwriter David Baddiel and director Josh Appignanesi exploit every one of them.
Mahmud’s guide on his journey back to Judaism – Mahmud’s real name is ‘Solly Shimshillewitz’ – is a Jewish cabbie named Lenny, played with droll, understated humor by veteran TV star Richard Schiff (The West Wing). Lenny does his best to give Mahmud a crash-course in Judaism, a course which includes such ‘essential’ Jewish activities as: learning how to dance like Topol, how to say Oy vey! with the proper shoulder-shrug … and telling a Barbra Streisand joke at a bar-mitzvah. Watching Mahmud, the pseudo-devout Muslim, struggle trying to perform these ‘basic tasks’ provides some of the biggest laughs of the film. My favorite moment in Mahmud’s training is when Lenny sits him down to listen to a sad dirge by Mendelssohn. Lenny says of the music: “Doesn’t it make you want to put all your possessions in a wooden cart and slowly, sadly pull them away from your burning village?”
Ethnic humor of the kind that fueled My Big Fat Greek Wedding some years ago is basically what fuels The Infidel – but one senses that the stakes in this film are much, much higher than in Nia Vardalos’ delightful comedy. The inability of certain radicalized sectors of Islamic society to reconcile themselves to the modern world is largely what’s causing so many problems nowadays … and it’s precisely the intransigence of imam’s like the one depicted in The Infidel (played with silky menace by Yigal Naor) that is destroying relations between the Islamic east and democratic west right now.
There are some incredibly funny scenes in The Infidel that are also poignant because they make light of real-world hatreds that we’re all living with at the moment. Mahmud, for example, must attend a hate-filled anti-Israel rally in order to retain street-cred with his future in-law, the imam. Ironically, the rally is attended mostly by white liberals carrying signs saying things like: NO BLOOD FOR OIL, HANDS OFF IRAN, THE REAL HOLOCAUST WILL COME, etc. Mahmud accidently wears a Jewish yarmulke to the rally under his Islamic headwear. When his yarmulke is discovered, the mob around him is horrified … so he quickly and theatrically sets the yarmulke on fire to the cheers of the mob and the delight of the imam. [He later puts the burned yarmulke on at a bar-mitzvah.]
That’s sort of how the humor goes in The Infidel. You think Judd Apatow is edgy? You haven’t seen edgy until you’ve seen the humor in The Infidel. The Infidel goes where only Woody Allen and a few other comedians like Richard Pryor would go in the 1970’s. The cinematic craft in this film may not be what it was in Woody Allen’s heyday, but movie comedy doesn’t get any bolder – or more truthful – than this.
The ultimate message of The Infidel, delivered with both laughs and a dash of pathos, is simply this: that underneath the ethnic guises we inherit and (to some extent) adopt, underneath the trendy identity-politics, we are all simply human beings. Not ‘Jews’ or ‘Muslims,’ ‘Brits’ or ‘Americans.’ Just people.
A few final thoughts … It is nothing short of breathtaking to me that Fox News and the conservative/right-wing media here in America haven’t taken up the cause of this film. While not being an explicitly ‘political’ film, The Infidel is – to put it bluntly – so right-wing as to make your head spin. How is this film not getting more attention? Does a movie need to have Jon Voight in it before certain people notice? The filmmaking team behind The Infidel did something extraordinarily brave in creating this film, and more people should know about it. So many films bear the sobriquet of ‘brave’ nowadays, without really deserving it. The Infidel earns that title, and then some.
You can watch The Infidel right now, below: