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General collapse of categories

12 April 2010

by Stephen Brown


MAHMUD (played by Omid Djalili, currently seen in the Moneysuper­market commercials) is happily living with his wife and children in London. His world is turned upside down when he dis­covers that, though he was raised by Muslims, his birth parents were Jewish.

Like all good comedy, The Infidel (Cert. 15) is a serious piece, as Mahmud has to assimilate this new-found heritage into his world-view. He is aided and abetted by Richard Schiff (Toby from The West Wing) as his cabbie neigh­bour with whom, till then, he has been at odds. The screenplay is by David Baddiel, who, as a Jew (but often mistaken for Muslim), has felt able to make some terrible jokes about his faith and culture (“They’re people of the book, the chequebook, that is”), which most of us would feel racist.

Mahmud feels caught on the horns of a dilemma, as, among his Muslim colleagues, he colludes with their anti-Semitic remarks, laughing louder and longer than anyone. Also, his son needs permis­sion from his girlfriend’s family before marriage can follow. Her stepfather is a religious leader of a strict, if dubious, persuasion. Mah­mud struggles to conceal his roots, so that his son’s happiness isn’t jeopardised. Yet he is fascinated by what he learns of Judaism.

The film tends to concentrate on its cultural elements, such as learn­ing to accompany shouts of “Oy” with a stereotypical shrug of resig­nation, as he dances to a porn version of Fiddler on the Roof. But what The Infidel does well is demonstrate what the two faiths hold in common, drawing out of the Qur’an understandings that preach tolerance and forgiveness.

An imam, supposing Mahmud’s turmoil to be to do with homo­­sex­uality, strives to assure him of Islam’s forbearance over the matter; the joke is that anything is more acceptable than being Jew­ish.

Occasionally, Christianity gets a look-in. Sometimes, it is as another heir of the Abrahamic tradition. The director, Josh Appignanesi, pulls off a neat bit of mise-en-scène when Mahmud enters the town hall thinking of himself as Muslim, and comes out knowing he is Jewish, while a black Gospel choir sings a Christmas carol.

On other occasions we catch glimpses of Christianity’s dark side. If there now is anti-Semitism among certain Muslims, then there were Christians on that band­wagon long before them.

The film could at this point easily have strayed into suggesting that religions of any kind are ridi­culous and bad for us. Instead, it centres on two men’s learning who they are by discovering that their different faith traditions not only shape, but can transfigure, the hu­manity that we hold in common. Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered they may well be, but in that respect the laugh is on us as well as them.

On general release.

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