Review: The Infidel

It’s enough to make you lose faith

April 8, 2010


Omid Djalili (right) and Richard Schiff in the disappointing satire

Omid Djalili (right) and Richard Schiff in the disappointing satire

Do not be misled by the trailer which promises much provocative fun. The Infidel, written by David Baddiel, is a surprisingly strained, often painfully crass satire about religion and extremism, hobbled by its "right-on" multicultural message and a failure to portray Muslims or Jews with much conviction or understanding.
Not only do no sacred cows meet their end in the film, it often feels as if the filmmakers ran out of inspiration immediately after coming up with their pitch: "Hey, a Muslim discovers that he's adopted, and a Jew!" This is a shame because The Infidel, directed by Josh Appignanesi, wastes not only the possibilities of a controversial subject but also the considerable talent of its star Omid Djalili and a strong supporting cast on a feeble plot and some predictable and unoriginal jokes.

Channelling Alexei Sayle, Djalili plays Mahmud, a middle-aged British-born Muslim paterfamilias and mini-cab driver. As in the superior film, My Son the Fanatic, Mahmud's children are more devout (as well as much more Pakistani-looking) than he or his wife are, in particular his (strangely posh-sounding) son Rashid. This becomes a problem when Rashid's fiancée turns out to have a new stepfather in the form of a radical Muslim cleric al-Masri (played by Israeli actor Yigal Naor) who has just come to Britain to preach. It becomes even more of a problem when Mahmud discovers that he is adopted and that his birth name was Solly Shimsillewitz.

He finds himself asking his neighbour and enemy, Lenny (Richard Schiff), a hard-drinking Jewish-American black-cab driver who lives across the street, for an introduction to the Jewish world and gets taken to a ghastly barmitzvah. It is typical of the film's jerrybuilt quality that Mahmud is supposed to know nothing about Jews when he first discovers his racial identity and yet makes cracks about things like Kristallnacht. In general, the jokes at the expense of Jews (exhausted oy-vey stereotypes) and Judaism (a creepy rabbi in a black hat) have a slightly bitter edge, while those at the expense of Muslims, Islam and Anglo-Pakistanis tend, with a couple of startling exceptions, to be both cautious or clueless. Baddiel seems unsure of the distinctions between Islamic and specifically Anglo-Pakistani culture. That said, The Infidel is insulting to everyone, not in a clever Life of Brian way, but in an ignorant and lazy way that becomes increasingly dull as the film manically grinds away, Djalili mugging desperately through one coarsely crafted scene after another. It is all too typical that at one point Mamoud's wife says: "I knew I should never have married a Shia", but a bit later Mahmoud says: "At least I'm not a Shia." This is not just a slip - the filmmakers appear not to get the significance of the Shia-Sunni Muslim divide.

It is this complacent lack of interest in religion or in the real cultural and ethnic issues that the film is supposed to be about, that makes The Infidel such a failure as satire. Effective satirists invariably have a knowledge of whatever they are making fun of, not just an attitude to it. Here and there, Baddiel's script does score the odd point and provokes the odd laugh, but even the handful of good gags are flogged to death.

But then a fog of condescension hangs over the entire project: none of the scenes of working-class or lower middle-class life, either Muslim or Jewish, ring true.

Finally, The Infidel looks and feels cheap and shoddy, deepening the feeling that it should have been a series of TV-show sketches rather than a big-screen feature.

Last updated: 2:58pm, February 18 2011