Meet Mahmud Nasir(Omid Djalili), loving husband, doting father and something of a relaxed Muslim. Does he say his prayers five times a day? Of course. Well, usually. Does he fast every day of Ramadan? Who's counting anyway? He may not be the most observant, but in his heart he is as Muslim as it gets. But after his mother's death a discovery turns Mahmud's world upside down. He finds his birth certificate, which reveals that not only was he adopted at birth but he's Jewish...
Arriving on Australian screens just after the inspired comic polemics of Chris Morris’ Four Lions, Josh Appignanesi’s The Reluctant Infidel appears to be a lesser feature in terms of dealing with contemporary faith and the clash of religions in the United Kingdom. But if the former work is by and about the nature of confrontation then this pleasing comedy more than makes do with the idea of conciliation – it really, really just wants us to get along.
Mahmud Nasir (Omid Djalili) is your classic everyman comic lead: a boisterous London mini-cab driver who can swear just as well as the East End’s finest, he juggles family, work, football and faith. He’s a Muslim who has grown up in Britain and he’s pure second generation, adapted to the new world and mocking the old in private. Mahmud mainly notices his faith when it infringes on his life – as he tells his son, Rashid (Amit Shar), it’s bad enough that they can clear a tube carriage just by getting on while carrying a backpack, without getting involved in political debate.
But Mahmud has to think about Islam and what it means to him when he finds an adoption certificate while cleaning out his late mother’s home and learns that his birth parents were Jewish. The existential panic that follows is cleverly orchestrated by comedian David Baddiel’s screenplay, which liberally heaps troubles on Mahmud. The family of his son’s fiancé includes a new stepfather who is a radical cleric, while a protective rabbi (Little Britain’s Matt Lucas) won’t let Mahmud see his ailing father, and his wife (Archie Panjabi) suspects that he’s having an affair due to his odd behaviour.
Much of the weight for making this humourous falls on the shoulders of Djalili, who in the U.K. is a successful stand-up comic and star of his own BBC1 sketch show, but is better known to international audiences due to his knack for playing scabrous or amusingly droll supporting roles in everything from Casanova to Gladiator. He has a voluble, expressive face, accentuated by a cropped dome, and it twists into shapes both confounded and outraged as his pugnacious body reacts to each setback. He can wring a lot out of little.
Whenever the Jewish and Islamic faiths interact in The Reluctant Infidel they can only greet, or disparage, each other with cliché. It’s not so much about hate as the mere lack of communication skills. No-one knows any better, which makes for a bumpy ride between Mahmud and his Jewish neighbour, Lenny (Richard Schiff), an American Jew deposited in London after a divorce. Armed with a razor sharp disdain that warms in more subtle terms than the script allows for, The West Wing star is an able foil for Djalili. Lenny takes Mahmud to a bat mitzvah, coaches him on hand gestures (it’s actually in the shoulders) and remonstrates with him when ducking out looms as the easiest option.
Baddiel’s storyline and the comparatively low budget keep the film on simple terms, with Mahmud eventually having to make his case both for himself and his son’s cancelled marriage in front of the entire local community. The outcome is seriously contrived, but the material never gives up on quick laughs and humanist realisations. And occasionally it hits the heights of Four Lions: when a frustrated Mahmud makes an inappropriate remark about Jews police officers arrest him for racial vilification; when he confesses to his Jewish heritage they have to let him go. An attack has become self-deprecation, one of the cleverer quick changes in a film filled with them.