A debate is raging in this country over what it means to be Muslim. The ethnic comedy The Infidel will hardly resolve things, but it least it tosses some leavening humor at the question.
Following its debut in the spring at the Tribeca Film Festival and its subsequent limited runs in New York and California, director Josh Appignanesi’s send-up of religious stereotypes opts for South Florida as the next market to attempt to gain a box office foothold. Not a bad strategy when you consider the left turn the film’s plot takes.
You see, the infidel of the title is British Muslim Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili), as indifferent to his religious faith as his children are to him. The biggest challenge he expects to face is his son Rashid’s looming wedding, but — shades of La Cage aux Folles — his fiancee’s stepfather is a fanatical and intolerant Muslim cleric who doubts the Nasirs are “proper Muslims” or that Rashid is worthy of his stepdaughter.
But that crisis pales next to Mahmud’s discovery, upon the death of his mother, of his birth certificate. It seems that middle-aged, pudgy, bald-headed Mahmud — who looks like a Muslim Bob Hoskins — was adopted at birth. Not only that, but he is actually Jewish, and his birth name is Solly Shimshillewitz.
It is not that he hates Jews, just that he is hopelessly ignorant of them beyond their stereotypical characteristics. So he needs a crash course in what a Jew is and how they behave — how they walk, dance, shrug and sigh – again, shades of La Cage. The only Jew he knows is the antagonistic transplanted New York cabbie, Lenny (Richard Schiff from TV’s The West Wing), who inexplicably takes on the role of Jew coach. Then, like Eliza Doolittle at the ball, Mahmud gets tested by attending a bar mitzvah with Lenny.
Much of this could easily come off as offensive, but is saved by the performance of Djalili, a comedian-actor with an ingratiating manner and a sky spin on the dialogue.
Not even he can save the film from its sentimental conclusion, which grinds the tale to a decided halt, but there are a few solid laughs before then, enough to wish the film luck trying to get out beyond Florida.
The Infidel is currently showing at Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth, Sunrise Cinemas-Deerfield Mall and Sunrise Cinemas-Sunrise 11.