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New moral compass

20 February 2015

Stephen Brown sees a new take on the  crook going straight

HURRAH for a sympathetic account of Islam; for that is what the new film Snow in Paradise (Cert. 18) gives us - not that it's a propaganda piece. As far as I can tell, the director/writer Andrew Hulme is not a Muslim. He describes his film as a character piece hidden within the structure of a thriller.

Dave, played by Frederick Schmidt, is ensnared within the criminal element, alongside his mate Tariq (Aymen Hamdouchi), in Hoxton, in the East End of London. The first noteworthy thing about the plot is that white and Asian youths are best friends. Also it's true because the Dave of the story is based on the life of Martin Askew. He plays Uncle Jimmy in the film, and co-wrote the screenplay.

What starts out as a rather typical gangster film - all heavies, drugs, and ominous soundtrack - persuasively segues into a quest for meaningful existence. Dave (who's nominally C of E) begins his spiritual journey when stumbling upon a mosque while looking for Tariq. He learns there that the true meaning of jihad is to struggle, particularly within oneself, which is exactly what Dave has been doing throughout the picture.

Dave is in some kind of Faustian pact with a family of wrongdoers, stretching back generations. He pushes cocaine (snow) until, ultimately, he discover paradise at the mosque. The turning point comes for Dave, as it did for Askew, with the guilt and responsibility he experiences for the subsequent death of Tariq. He teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown before finding a reason for living.

While there are several such crime films about life-changing conversions to Christianity (The Cross and the Switchblade, 21 Grams, etc.), Islam is rarely offered to Western audiences as an alternative peaceful ideology to that of violence. It is more likely to be viewed with suspicion and animosity. As such, it has become the religion of marginalised people, partly explaining its appeal to rootless characters aspiring towards stability.

It is a familiar scenario in crime thrillers, of course, for a man hankering after going straight to be confronted with his past. Former associates come knocking, de- manding his services. The twist here is that it is someone's budding faith that is about to be sorely tried.

Snow in Paradise constantly juxtaposes the rules undoubtedly governing criminal life with those of religion. They employ a few similar means - loyalty, strong senses of right and wrong, etc. - but to achieve quite different ends. Islam happens, in this narrative, to be the faith that gives Dave a new moral compass, but it isn't hard to see Christianity or some other faith providing an equivalent.

Whether the film succeeds in convincing us that religion is all that it takes to change a villain's ingrained behaviour is a moot point. The constant use of flashbacks and flash-forwards serves only to confuse the issue. The film's saving grace is its cinematography, which unmistakably places villainy in the shadows, while portraying scenes at the mosque in an ineffable, almost irresistible, light.

On general release.

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